George Shearing

George Shearing was a jazz musician who enjoyed a long time of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. He was often underappreciated in jazz traditions that distrust popular success. Shearing’s greatest achievement was inventing a unique quintet sound that combines piano, vibraphones, electric guitars, basses, and drums. Shearing’s style, which he called “locked hands”, was a result of his early-’40s work as a musician with the Lionel Hampton band. He also learned from Glenn Miller’s sax section, and the King Cole Trio. Shearing’s heyday saw him selling tons of records for Capitol and MGM. He used closely-knit, harmonized block chords on the piano, and the vibes and guitarist tripled the melody. Shearing was also a pioneer in small-combo AfroCuban jazz in 1950s. This is what makes this urbane sound so popular. Cal Tjader was the one who caught the Latin jazz bug when he was playing with Shearing. The English bandleader also used such eminent congueros like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. Shearing is best known as a composer for his unique, soaring “Lullaby of Birdland” bop tune. He also composed “Conception” (and “Consternation”), which were both highly regarded. Although his solo style was his own, it reflected the influence of great boogie-woogie and classical pianists, such as Fats Waller and Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Teddy Wilson. Fellow pianists have long admired Shearing’s light and refined touch. He could also play the accordion and occasionally sing modestly. Shearing was born blind and began playing the piano when he was three years old. He received music training at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind, London, as a teenager, and then began to take jazz lessons from Fats Waller’s 78s and Teddy Wilson. He began playing professionally in the Ambrose dance group and recorded his first recordings in 1937, under the guidance of Leonard Feather, a fellow Brit. He was a big star in Britain and performed for the BBC. He also played a crucial role in Stephane Grappelli’s London-based groups in the early ’40s. Feather encouraged him to emigrate to New York City in 1947. Shearing soon absorbed bebop into himself, replacing Garner in Oscar Pettiford’s Trio, and leading a quartet with Buddy DeFranco. He formed the most well-known and recognizable of his quintets in 1949. They included Marjorie Hyams on vibes (thereby proving to be an important force for female jazz instrumentalists), Chuck Wayne, John Levy, and Denzil Top on drums. After recording briefly for Discovery and then Savoy, Shearing moved on to more lucrative relationships with MGM (1950-1955), and Capitol (1955-1969), where he recorded albums with Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee. In 1961, he recorded a single album for Jazzland (with Wes Montgomery), and started playing concert dates with symphony orchestres. Shearing started to disband his then-predictable quintet and finally ended it in 1978. His own label, Sheba was established. It lasted for several years and then was closed down in 1978. He also recorded some trio recordings for MPS during the same decade. His profile was greatly reduced in the 1970s. However, Shearing enjoyed a renaissance after signing with Concord in 1979. He recorded a number of highly acclaimed albums with Mel Torme. This helped to raise the singer’s profile. His full range of influences was also present on several solo piano albums. From 1992, when he signed with Telarc, he continued to perform and record. Most often, he performed in a trio or duo setting. Shearing, who was largely inactive after a fall in New York City’s apartment in 2004, died from congestive heart disease at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. He was 91.

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