When the 30-year-old blind British jazz pianist George Shearing came to America for good early in 1949, he ran into fellow transplanted Brit Leonard Feather, a prominent critic, producer, promoter, and songwriter, who suggested that the pianist enlarge his trio to quintet size by adding vibes and drums. Feather’s idea was that piano-bass-drums trios were a dime a dozen, and that the expanded instrumentation would help to make the sound of Shearing’s group different and unique.
Shearing, who passed away this year on St. Valentine’s Day at age 91, had been influenced first by the irrepressible Fats Waller and the elegant swing pianist Teddy Wilson, and then by Milt Buckner, who as Lionel Hampton’s pianist throughout the 1940’s played in a locked-hands chordal style so as to be heard over the blasting sound of Hampton’s horn-heavy 18-piece orchestra.
But Shearing, at heart a mellow swing-style pianist, was not attracted to a loud, stomping sound for his group and, in adding vibraphonist Margie Hyams and guitarist Chuck Wayne to his other sidemen, created something even more unique than Feather had anticipated. The combination of his locked-hands-chorded piano with the two added instruments created a group sound unmatched in jazz, and, spurred by their initial single of “September in the Rain,” which sold nearly a million copies within a year, the Shearing quintet would be named DownBeat’s Best Small Combo for 1949.
The new Shearing group was not only multinational and coed but biracial. By the end of the 1940’s there were few formally integrated bands. Although in 1936 Benny Goodman had toured with an integrated quartet that included black pianist Teddy Wilson, few white band leaders aside from Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet had taken the plunge. Shearing, though, featured Denzil Best, a bebop drummer from New York City, and John Levy, a fine bassist born in New Orleans and raised in Chicago, both highly regarded, well-connected black musicians. A few years later, Levy would become personal manager to Shearing and other stars like Sarah Vaughan.
In 1952 Shearing wrote the tune “Lullaby of Birdland,” after the New York jazz room named for Charlie Parker on Broadway near 52nd Street, where the tune was played as a theme during live radio broadcasts from the club. The quintet’s repertoire, initially rooted in popular and jazz standards, became slightly more diverse as Shearing grew interested in bebop and added newer numbers, although he resisted the most highly aggressive bop and hard-bop numbers. In 1954 he brought in a conga drummer and briefly fronted a big band in mid-1959. Yet he never lost his fondness for a small-group sound and for “jazzing the classics,” and his groups continued to play hip versions of Bach and Beethoven for more popular audiences, annoying certain jazz critics who felt he was selling out. This variety made it possible for Shearing’s groups to work not only the big jazz rooms like Birdland but supper clubs like Chicago’s London House and important jazz concerts coast-to-coast and festivals in America and abroad. The pianist even had his own record label, Sheba Records, between 1969 and 1973.
By the late 1970’s the quintet had gone through numerous personnel changes and adapted to changing fashions in American music. The quintet still worked the top rooms, but Shearing had grown weary of the concept and disbanded the quintet. He began to work in various formats and, in 1982, teamed with singer Mel Torme for a series of six poignant and swinging albums, several in live settings, through 1990. Although Torme played excellent piano himself, the Shearing-Torme collaborations presented Torme singing to Shearing’s accompaniment with occasional bass and drum backing, and were widely admired.
The amiable Shearing never felt the need to apologize for his style or success. By nature a happy man who felt blessed to work in his own way in his chosen profession, his was largely a world of stylish, gently propulsive interpretations of “Emily,” East of the Sun,” “I Hear Music,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “The More I See You,” and other popular standards from what is generally called the Great American Songbook. His work, mellow and understated as the man himself, left a more lasting impression than many other players and groups who appeared to an initial hullabaloo of praise and later faded. If some claimed to believe that Shearing was a musician who played “popular” rather than “jazz,” so be it. Shearing was who he was, and he will be missed. R.I.P.