George Shearing: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

For Michael

Shearing to crop

George Shearing, 1959

Defining light with sound…

To step into the world with a disability could be daunting for some people. The realization that you are not equipped for a “normal” life—that you must lay out an alternative path for yourself that most people don’t understand…it’s an overwhelming thought. Yet some people pull this task off flawlessly.

George Shearing was born congenitally blind. When those of us with vision close our eyes we see darkness. Did Mr. Shearing see darkness? How would he know? If you can’t see light, can you define darkness? Without light, does darkness even exist? These are questions for philosophers…and scientists…and perhaps mid-century enthusiasts.

Mr. Shearing came into his world in 1919 in the Battersea area of London, the youngest of nine children. James Shearing, his father, was employed as a coal worker, while his mother, Ellen, raised children by day and cleaned train cars at night. Young George began paving his own path by dropping glass bottles from an upstairs window of the family home and listening to them shatter. Milk bottles, to Shearing’s ears, represented classical sounds while beer bottles denoted jazz tones. The family piano also served as an enlightenment, as he picked out tunes beginning at the age of three.

He received formal musical training at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, where he studied piano after being inspired by American jazz artists Art Tatum and Fats Waller. A teacher there steered him away from the classics after recognizing George’s talents for improvisation. His gifts, coupled with hard work, opened up a world of college opportunities to study music. Yet financial circumstances restrained him, keeping him in night clubs, performing for five dollars a week and meager success.

After World War II George took a leap, landing in the United States. However, booking agents weren’t impressed, as they attempted to compare him to other musicians. A spark of light told George he needed to develop a sound all his own. So he did, and it became known as The Shearing Sound.

He laid the foundation with a quintet:  a vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. Shearing hoped to attain a “full block sound” as he called it, and to achieve this he arranged for the vibraphone to double what his right hand played and the guitar to double his left. In effect he crafted a sophisticated sub-genre of jazz, loved and appreciated by listeners worldwide who boasted more gentle musical appetites.

Two years after immigrating to the United States, The George Shearing Quintet recorded its first international hit, “September in the Rain.”  The single’s success boosted bookings in night clubs and concerts, and solidified the allure of Shearing’s innovative sound. The song was composed in 1937 and Shearing’s 1949 interpretation is cool…a continuous light, bouncy, repetition, most noticeably between the vibraphone and piano.

The syncopated and swingin’ 1952 “Lullaby of Birdland,” adopted by its namesake New York City jazz club as its theme song, became a true jazz standard. Composed by Shearing, this foot-tappin’ groove puts a smile on my face but would never put me to sleep.

The spotlight remained on Shearing for two decades then filtered lightly as smooth jazz fell out of favor with popular audiences. Yet he continued to record and perform to the delight of many.

Coming out of the darkness with sound…

A few years ago I was thrust into a new world. Darkness encompassed me for many months. There was no defined path for my situation—I’d never known another person who found themselves in this awful reawakening. I couldn’t find anyone strong enough to pull me out of the darkness, only a few sincere friends telling me it would be okay. But how did they know? When they closed their eyes they didn’t see my world. What they imagined as my reality was nowhere near how it felt or looked through my sorely damaged eyes.

This new world robbed me of a few things essential to healthy living, one of those being good sleep. I’d awaken many times at night, my heart racing. I’d gone from a person who relished sleep and nighttime to one who dreaded the thought of being alone in the dark. Fear of the unknown consumed me, creating severe anxiety and illness.

Like the deliverance Shearing must have felt when he first heard glass shatter upon cobblestones outside his window, I too was released from my misery and fear by sound. Interestingly, the sound I heard was produced by Shearing himself, over fifty years ago.

George and Nancy

My first experience with Shearing. Love everything about this album and it’s modern cover.

I was talking to a friend one night, and he told me he was listening to George Shearing and Nancy Wilson’s, The Swingin’s Mutual.  This didn’t ring a bell, but my friend and I have very similar musical tastes. Curious, I pulled the album up on YouTube. In an instant, everything clicked, and I once again awakened in a different world. Like Shearing’s shattering glass, a new sound enlightened me. It pulled me into an existence of calm. It steered me to a bright path—once again I sleep peacefully through the night and no longer fear the dark.

Most of the music I listen to originates from the mid-century, and I’ve long been a fan of cool jazz. How was it possible I was unfamiliar with the gentle swing of Shearing’s signature sound—one that epitomizes the uncluttered, organized, and polished characteristics of mid-century modern? I think it was a matter of timing. Shearing found his way to me when I most needed him.

a Lullaby in Birdland

This album was a gift from a dear friend. I love how Shearing is in the spotlight.

I’m not a musician, but my interpretation of jazz is that its magic lies in its timing and strong use of syncopation. Syncopation is defined as “a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat.”

In the dark world I was trapped in, I’d become a miserable and weak beat. But Shearing wouldn’t stand for it. He wrapped his enchanted fingers around me and recomposed me as the accent in a delightful new piece. To thank him is not enough. Instead, I close my eyes and imagine a dimly lit mid-century nightclub, soothing cocktails, and a close friend. I see a charming world in which crisp sounds weave through my entire being and illuminate all that was once dark.

“September in the Rain”. Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 22 May 2016.

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_in_the_Rain>

Keepnews, Peter. “George Shearing, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ Jazz Virtuoso, Dies at 91”. The New York Times. 14 Feb 2011. Web. 22 May 2016.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/arts/music/15shearing.html?_r=1>

 

 

 

 

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