Lullaby of Birdland

The jazz pianist George Shearing died this past Monday at the age of 91. Shearing’s long career encompassed many phases and stages. The Boston Globe’s Mark Feeney puts his reputation among the beats right up at the top of his recollection:

“God’s empty chair.”
Those three words above come from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. They’re how Dean Moriarty describes the piano bench George Shearing has just vacated. Dean and Sal Paradise have been in a jazz club listening to a Shearing set “pop-eyed with awe.” Now Shearing has gone to join Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the model for Dean.

Hey, man, I thought that chair belonged to Eric Clapton. (Just kidding.) Feeney continues:

He was born blind and English (the latter a far worse handicap for a jazz pianist to overcome). He wrote the jazz standard “Lullaby of BIrdland.” He came to fame with a marvelously swinging recording of “September in the Rain.” He had a lovely, light, casual style that was peripheral to the main development of jazz, but it’s often on the periphery that happiness happens least complicatedly.

The obituaries in the Times (of London, via the Wall Street Journal), the Times (New York, by Peter Keepnews), and the Washington Post testify to Shearing’s accomplishments. “Virtuoso” is the common denominator here. Terry Teachout beautifully recaps Shearing’s career in “Both good and popular,” quoting Shearing’s memoir to good effect.
I tumbled to Shearing through his work with Mel Torme. The two of them had an unusual partnership that is memorialized on many recordings including two Grammy winners, An Evening with George Shearing & Mel Torme and Top Drawer. But you wouldn’t want to miss any of their other collaborations, including The Classic Concert Live, A Vintage Year, and Mel and George “Do” World War II (now apparently a collector’s item, it’s available new via Amazon for a mere $205.01 plus shipping).
Torme recalls his collaboration with Shearing in his own memoir, It Wasn’t All Velvet. He writes: “George’s pianistic touch with his extraordinary mental storehouse of an exceptionally broad spectrum of music, and his ability to transform the most mundane pop tune into a thing of musical beauty was a thing to be envied, admired, and appreciated.” He ultimately gives up: “To try explaining Shearing’s enormous talent is tantamount to pursuing fireflies with an eyecup.”
Torme’s work with Shearing is full of beauty and high jinks. In the liner notes to the two-disc collection of Torme’s highlights on Concord, Shearing writes that in the Ellington medley he’s playing “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” while Torme is singing “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Shearing comments: “We had to stay sober while recording this one!”
In those liner notes, written the year Torme died, Shearing looked back on his partnership with Torme. “Mel summed it up quite succinctly when he said that we were two bodies with one musical mind….Our minds were so much in sync that it would be hard to tell if we were performing a song for the first or the twentieth time. We loved the same composers,” he added, “Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Johann Sebastian Bach…to mention just a few. Our minds were so in tune when it came to lyric reading or singing that there would be no question about where to pause or take a breath.”
In the Newport Jazz Festival video below, Shearing introduces Torme and then accompanies him on “Just One of Those Things”/”A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a song that Torme describes as the “good luck token” of their collaboration. Torme takes a look back over his shoulder when Shearing makes that nightingale sing. RIP.

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