A Conversation With ... George Shearing

The late George Shearing enjoyed an international reputation as a pianist, arranger and composer. Equally at home on the classical concert stage as in jazz clubs, Shearing was recognised for inventive, orchestrated jazz. He wrote over 300 compositions, including the classic “Lullaby of Birdland,” which has become a jazz standard.
In 1982 and 1983, he won Grammy Awards with recordings he made with Mel Tormé. In addition, Mr. Shearing was the subject of an hour-long television documentary entitled The Shearing Touch. It was broadcast on The South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg on ITV in the U.K.  It can be seen now in the U.S. on the BRAVO cable television channel.
In 1996, Mr. Shearing was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List and he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his “service to music and Anglo-U.S. relations.” He was presented the first American Music Award by the National Arts Club, New York City, in March 1998.
George Shearing passed away in February 2011. He was 91. The following is a conversation between Bill King and Shearing from 1999.
Bill King: Herbie Hancock said he set out to learn jazz piano by listening to the records of you and Oscar Peterson. Have you ever thought about the influence you have over players from that generation?
George Shearing: Not at all! Herbie’s a nice man. Oscar, anyone can understand. My main drive was that locked-hand thing I learned from Milt Buchner.
BK: You once remarked that shaking the hand of Fats Waller was like squeezing a bunch of bananas.
GS: His hands were so big and it happened in a club in England years and years ago, way before the war. He could stretch about thirteen keys. I think he just dropped by and sat in one night.
BK: Early on you worked with Stephane Grappelli. That must have been quite a pairing?
GS: It was! The only thing that bothered me about it, even though I was pretty well set to go to America anyway, was when a woman came out of the underground and recognized me as Stephane Grappelli’s pianist. I love Stephane; he’s a fine classical pianist too and a great jazz violinist, but I’m nobody’s pianist. I wasn’t even Mel Torme’s pianist. I like the idea of collaborating but I haven’t spent my life dedicated to music to be an accompanist.
BK: But you have been an accompanist on many occasions.
GS: I have been an accompanist a lot but I just don’t like the term. I like the term collaborator much better. You’ve probably seen the billing; not George Shearing featuring Mel Torme…it’s Mel Torme and George Shearing or George Shearing and Mel Torme.
BK: You began recording in 1936 and came to America in 1947 with the assistance of Leonard Feather.
GS: Yes! You know why I gave up playing the accordion?
BK: Why?
GS: I gave it up because I found out what a true gentleman was. A true gentleman is a man who knows how to play the accordion and doesn’t. Yeah, Leonard Feather was very, very instrumental in getting me to America. He signed my affidavit of support and all kinds of stuff.
BK: Your rise in popularity sort of coincided with that of Dave Brubeck, Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Horace Silver and company.
GS: That’s right. We came in pretty much together. I think I preceded Brubeck by two years. When I first came over for a visit in 1946 I took records home of Errol Garner. When I heard him play “Lullabye of Birdland” I wondered why I didn’t write it that way.
BK: You replaced Errol Garner in Oscar Pettiford’s trio that led to a quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco before forming your own quartet in 1949.
GS: Buddy DeFranco, John Levy,  Denzil Best and me. Buddy, of course, was thinking about recording and was talking with Capitol Records while we were talking with MGM. It was to change later on when we signed with Capitol and Buddy with MGM. You could get two leaders billed as either Buddy DeFranco/George Shearing Quintet or George Shearing/Buddy DeFranco Quartet depending on which wife you were speaking to at the time.
BK: In 1963, you came to my hometown Louisville, Kentucky and played the Brown Theater. I remember hearing you warm-up by playing “I’ll Be Around” behind the curtains. I had never heard anything as beautiful in my life. The chords and key you played in had a profound effect on me.
GS: Really? I guess it had a sudden newness about it. I did it in A, three sharps. It was a brighter key, much different than playing in A flat or B flat. Registration was what it was all about. We recorded “Pick Yourself Up” In G flat. “ My Silent Love” I think we did in D major. Actually, “I’ll Be Around” in B. Nobody plays in those keys.
BK: At one point you performed classical concertos with orchestras.
GS: Yes indeed! I did some of the composing and orchestration because a lot came from the recordings we made with big orchestras with Captiol. I got rather worried about having memory losses and my technical inability in classical so I gave it up because I thought there were so many wonderful classical pianists who do that and that alone and perhaps I should leave it to them and ease up on my nerves a bit.
BK: A number of your compositions have been recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, who recorded “ Conception” under the title “ Deception”..
GS: “Deception”…for one thing he didn’t play the right bridge. “ Consternation” was recorded by Bud Powell. “Lullabye of Birdland” by everybody.
BK: A lot of aspiring young pianists learned from your books in the early 60’s. How did that come about?
GS: Brubeck had a series and Errol Garner had some transcriptions. We were asked by publishers to do them. They wanted third and fourth grade arrangements. If I remember at the time it was Robbins Music primarily.
BK: Herbie Hancock spoke highly of Canadian composer and  arranger Robert Farnon saying that he studied his complex writing while a university student. You also recorded with Farnon.
GS: Oh, he’s marvelous. And he’s still marvelous. Things go out of date as you know in our business as well as any other business. There are a lot of us that were more fashionable in days of yore. I believe that Bob Farnon is arguably the best arranger and composer in that particular style. He loves English music. His string writing is magnificent. When I send letters to him I usually address them to the way he speaks of himself; Harvey Clapsettle! He has a wonderful sense of humor, you know.
BK: You are a great listener. I saw you a couple years back at the Top of the Senator for a Shirley Horn concert. Your body-language seemed to reflect the ebb and flow of her performance.
GS: Oh yes…she’s simply marvelous. It’s a meeting of the emotional minds I think.
BK: Through it all you’ve had good years with Concord Records recording with Jim Hall, Marian McPartland, and others, and now it’s with Telarc.
GS: “ Favorite Things” has been one, you know the tune. There have been two quintet albums; That Shearing Sound Again and a Christmas album that was not released in England; The George Shearing Quintet Christmas Album. Favorite Things is just some of my favorite tunes I enjoy playing.
- Mr. Shearing performing at the Madison Boys Club in New York in 1949, two years after immigrating to the United States. Credit: Associated Press

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