George Shearing, English-born jazz pianist whose 'Lullaby' became a standard, dies at 91

By Matt Schudel
Monday, February 14, 2011; 8:39 PM

George Shearing, a British-born jazz musician whose elegantly innovative piano stylings brought him widespread popularity, and whose composition "Lullaby of Birdland" has become an enduring standard, died Feb. 14 of congestive heart failure in New York City. He was 91.

Mr. Shearing, who was blind from birth, forged an early career as England's leading jazz pianist before settling in the United States in 1947. Within two years, he was considered a jazz sensation for his fresh-sounding harmonies and the bold originality of his quintet.

He and his group had a huge hit with their 1949 recording of "September in the Rain," which sold almost 1 million copies. Three years later, Mr. Shearing composed the catchy tune "Lullaby of Birdland," which has been recorded by dozens of artists, including Sarah Vaughan and Tito Puente.

Mr. Shearing's career took him from sweaty jazz clubs to concert halls to Buckingham Palace, where he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2007. He was the focus of an extended passage in Jack Kerouac's 1957 Beat-generation novel "On the Road," in which he was called "Old God Shearing."

"Shearing began to play his chords," Kerouac wrote. "They rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea."

Mr. Shearing's greatest innovation was his refined "Shearing sound," built on his "locked hands" piano technique. Other pianists had tried the method before, in which both hands play closely together on the keyboard, with the left hand duplicating the melody played by the right hand. But Mr. Shearing found a new harmonic richness by seeking to emulate the arrangements of Glenn Miller's big band from the early 1940s.

With his unusual instrumental lineup - vibraphone, guitar, bass and drums, as well as his piano - Mr. Shearing developed a sophisticated, gentle style that was a subtle rebellion against the era's high-speed bebop acrobatics.

Mr. Shearing's quintet won four Down Beat magazine polls as best jazz group, and critic Leonard Feather called him "the most important new jazz artist of the day."

Mr. Shearing redefined himself in his later years, performing classical music and working in challenging duo settings with singers and other pianists. For years, he and singer Mel Torme formed a partnership that produced many first-rate recordings, including "An Evening With George Shearing & Mel Torme" (1982) and "Top Drawer" (1983), both of which won Grammy Awards.

"I call George the Master," Torme told the New Yorker magazine in 1987. "He is a blissful, constant surprise musically."

George Albert Shearing was born in London on Aug. 13, 1919, the youngest of nine children. His father delivered coal, and his mother cleaned railroad cars.

Mr. Shearing began experimenting on the piano at 5 and was soon entranced by the recordings of American jazz musicians, notably pianists Art Tatum and Fats Waller. He had four years of musical training at a school for the blind in London and began playing in pubs to support his family when he was 16.

He performed in a band of blind musicians in the 1930s and in his teens often played jazz accordion. He quickly became recognized as England's top jazz pianist and often worked alongside French violinist Stephane Grappelli in London during World War II.

After coming to the United States in 1947, Mr. Shearing quickly adopted the new bebop vocabulary in jazz and joined groups led by bassist Oscar Pettiford and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. He often worked on the same bill with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and, in 1950, went on a national tour with singer Billy Eckstine, culminating in a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, he recorded top-selling albums with singers Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole and Nancy Wilson while continuing to tour with his own group.

Mr. Shearing disbanded his quintet in 1978, saying, "I found I could put myself on autopilot in the quintet. I'm now addressing myself more to being a complete pianist."

Mr. Shearing appeared at the White House for presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and in command performances at Buckingham Palace. He retired from the stage after being hospitalized in 2004 after a fall.

His first marriage, to Beatrice "Trixie" Bayes, ended in divorce. A son died in infancy during World War II.

Survivors include his second wife, Ellie Geffert, and a daughter from his first marriage.

In "On the Road," Kerouac described Shearing and his group at the Birdland nightclub, while the protagonists of the novel, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, sat close to the piano and the heat of the music.

"Shearing rose from the piano," Kerouac wrote, "dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. 'God's empty chair,' he said."

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