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

FILE - In this 1968 file photo, actress Lynn Redgrave, left, and George Shearing are shown at an Arts and Entertainment Network Party in New York. Shearing, the ebullient jazz pianist who wrote the standard "Lullaby of Birdland" and had a string of hits both with and without his quintet, died Monday, Feb. 14, 2011 in Manhattan of congestive heart failure. He was 91. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)
FILE - In this 1968 file photo, actress Lynn Redgrave, left, and George Shearing are shown at an Arts and Entertainment Network Party in New York. Shearing, the ebullient jazz pianist who wrote the standard "Lullaby of Birdland" and had a string of hits both with and without his quintet, died Monday, Feb. 14, 2011 in Manhattan of congestive heart failure. He was 91. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file) (Richard Drew - AP)

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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.

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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.


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