Sir George Shearing
A musician and composer, he was hailed as one of the finest pianists in the history of jazz, writes Steve Voce
Published 20/02/2011 | 05:00
'HAVE you been blind all your life?" an interviewer asked.
"Not yet," said George Shearing, who died in New York last Monday aged 92.
Blind from birth, he was to become Britain's leading jazz pianist, and he won the Melody Maker poll in that category seven times before he emigrated to the United States in 1947. Once there, he rose to be a jazz superstar.
No stranger to hit records throughout his career there, in 1952 he wrote Lullaby of Birdland, which became a jazz standard.
Born in Battersea on August 13, 1919, into a coalman's family of nine children, he had begun playing the piano at the age of three, and by the time he was five was fluent on both piano and accordion.
He studied classical music at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in Wandsworth, where he was a pupil between the ages of 12 and 16.
His family couldn't afford the expense of university, and he became a pub pianist when he was 16. Within the year he'd joined Claude Bampton's big band.
A friendship with the jazz writer Leonard Feather helped to get Shearing his first recording date under his own name for Decca in 1937.
During the war years he toured with the violinist Stephane Grappelli and worked in London throughout the Blitz. The trumpeter Tommy McQuater remembered playing and drinking with Shearing in London clubs and then coming out into the total blackout. Shearing would lead the sighted musicians through the pitch-black, rubble-strewn streets and set them on their respective routes home. A case of the blind leading the blind-drunk, as McQuater had it.
He was encouraged to emigrate to the States by American visitors to Britain like Fats Waller, Mel Powell, Glenn Miller and Coleman Hawkins.
Shearing's first US job was at the Onyx Club in New York, playing when Sarah Vaughan, the headliner, took an interval. He moved over the road to The Two Deuces, where he did the same job for Ella Fitzgerald. Working shoulder to shoulder with the idols of his youth made him feel as though he "had died and gone to heaven".
It wasn't until he put together his famous Quintet in January 1949 that he created his own identity. The highly original style, bland and uniquely palpable, became known as "The Shearing Sound", and it was copied by pianists across the world.
The jazz writer Richard Cook described the Quintet sound as "Bop relaxing in the lounge with an aperitif".
He used the quintet formula until 1978, by which time he had tired of it. From then on he appeared mainly as a soloist, or with accompaniment only from a virtuoso bass player such as Neil Swainson or Brian Torff.
His albums with Nancy Wilson and Nat 'King' Cole -- but particularly with Mel Torme -- proved him to be one of the finest of all accompanists to singers.
He formed a musical partnership with Torme that lasted for 10 years. Each had the highest opinion of the other, and Torme was more than irritated that the two Grammy Awards that their work won in 1983 and 1984 were awarded to him alone and not shared with the pianist.
Shearing spent much of his later years in England. He was made OBE in 1996 and knighted in 2007.
In 2003, Shearing's amusing and vivid memoir written with Alyn Shipton, Lullaby of Birdland, was published. His wife, Ellie, survives him.