George Shearing (1919-2011)

Jazz piano legend dies, aged 91


Sir George Shearing, the London-born jazz pianist who achieved wide success in the US and Britain, died on 14 February from heart failure.

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Born blind to working-class parents in Battersea, Shearing worked as a pub piano-player before being voted in successive Melody Maker polls as the UK’s best jazz pianist.

After the outbreak of World War II he played with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli, who was stranded in London.

Emigrating to the US in 1947 and after performing as an interval pianist to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Shearing rose to fame with his Quintet, developing a block chord technique know as the ‘Shearing Sound’, with his trademark ‘locked hands’ form of playing.

Joining Shearing, the Quintet line-up was guitarist Chuck Wayne, vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams, drummer Denzil Best and John Levy on bass.

His compositions became huge pop hits of the day, including ‘September in the Rain’ and his 1952 landmark MGM recording ‘Lullaby of Birdland’, named after the famous New York club where Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker played. Later, Shearing’s appearance at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival was famously captured on the film Jazz On A Summer’s Day .

Shearing was still performing into his eighties, having recorded with a wide range of configurations and artists, including vocalist Mel Tormé. But in 2004, a fall led to lengthy periods of hospital care and retirement from public performance. He was honoured for Lifetime Achievement at the BBC Jazz Awards in 2003 and collected a Knighthood from the Queen in 2007.

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Neil McKim