About this Recording
8.120823 - SHEARING, George: Lullaby of Birdland (1947-1952)

‘Lullaby of Birdland’ Original Recordings 1947-1952

When George Shearing burst on the American jazz scene in 1949, he had everything going against him. First of all, Shearing was English, and few European jazz musicians had ever become popular in the United States. Add to that the fact that he was blind, white, and played the piano and you can begin to realize the odds against making it in the competitive jazz scene on 52nd Street in New York, when such powerhouses as Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk were changing the way jazz was played. Despite all of these factors, George Shearing not only created a sound of his own, he became a huge commercial success, inventing a sound that helped make jazz accessible to a variety of audiences in the 1950s.

Born in London on 13 August 1919, George Albert Shearing was blind from birth. He attended the Linden Lodge School for the Blind, and although he studied classical piano, he showed an aptitude for improvisation from the start. In the late ’30s, Shearing toured with an all blind band led by Claude Bampton. He was slowly learning about jazz by listening to American records such as “Stratosphere” by Jimmie Lunceford and “Caravan” by Duke Ellington. After a stint with Bert Ambrose’s octet in the early ’40s, (where he absorbed elements of the Glenn Miller saxophone section harmonies), he joined noted French swing violinist Stephane Grappelli. A friendship with fellow Englishman composer and jazz critic Leonard Feather led him to visit America in 1946. In 1947, he went to stay.

Shearing listened incessantly to American jazz pianists, from stride kings Fats Waller and Earl Hines to Teddy Wilson and Meade ‘Lux’ Lewis. But the pianists who were the greatest influence on Shearing were Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Hank Jones, and Art Tatum. Through Powell, Shearing learned the explosive and aggressive technique of one of bebop’s pioneers. Garner and Jones’s music taught him that he could play bebop without being raucous. But Tatum’s awesome abilities were what proved to be the most influential of all.

Consequently, when he arrived in America, it was Tatum, another blind musician, whom Shearing sought out. Many pianists were in such awe of Tatum’s unbelievable technique, that he was referred to as ‘God’. According to Shearing, ‘When I first met him, I said, “Mr. Tatum, I’ve been listening to your records for years, and I’ve copied so many of your things. I’m really overjoyed to meet you”. And he said, “Glad to meet you, son. Gonna buy me a beer?” He really brings you right down to earth.’

In the States, Shearing got a job at the Hickory House, where he played everything from cocktail piano to bebop. At The Three Deuces, he replaced Erroll Garner in a trio led by Oscar Pettiford. Eventually he began listening to Lionel Hampton’s piano player, Milt Buckner, who played in what was known as the ‘locked hands’ style, in which the left hand played block chords in unison with the right hand, rather than playing repeated rhythm figures as stride or boogie pianists did. With the locked chord sound came a unique combination of instruments, focusing on the sound of piano, vibraphone, and guitar, playing in unison but in different octaves.

Although Shearing played with many different musicians over the years, his most famous group was a quintet featuring Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone, Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy (who would later be Shearing’s manager) on bass, and Denzil Best on drums. The unusual horn-less quintet was made even more unique because of its racially integrated makeup (both Best and Levy were black) and the inclusion of a woman, Hyams, in a major role. Shearing’s sound could be as elegant as that of the Modern Jazz Quartet (which had similar instrumentation), or it could swing with the fervor of the hardboppers of 52nd Street. On piano, Shearing exhibited the influences of all of his heroes, from the dazzling runs of Tatum and Oscar Peterson to the bebop of Bud Powell and the lyricism of Erroll Garner.

This compilation shows the early development of Shearing’s sound, beginning with a trio recording he made for Savoy in early 1947, in a session produced by Feather. On Have You Met Miss Jones, Shearing begins with a bebop solo in the right hand (without stating the melody) before settling into the locked hands style for the remainder of the record. A return trip to London in November 1948 saw Shearing still in the trio mode, although by this time, he had begun writing bebop-flavored compositions, including Consternation.

Back in the States, Shearing met clarinettist Buddy DeFranco, with whom he formed a quintet. But when they went to record, DeFranco’s contract with another label prohibited him from participating. At Leonard Feather’s suggestion, Shearing hired Marjorie Hyams, a 25-year old bop vibraphonist who had played with Woody Herman’s ‘First Herd’. The urbane sound of the piano and vibraphone became Shearing’s trademark, and the quintet made their first recordings for the Discovery label on 31 January 1949. On one of the songs, Ray Noble’s Cherokee (a favourite for bop musicians), Hyams moved over to the piano while Shearing played accordion, an instrument not normally associated with jazz.

Shearing’s love of outrageous puns was reflected in many of his song titles, as evidenced by two Leonard Feather compositions he recorded at this session: Bebop’s Fables and Life with Feather (the latter a nod toward the then popular Broadway play, Life with Father).

The next month, Shearing signed with MGM, for which he earned his greatest fame. At his first session for the label, Shearing recorded an old Tin Pan Alley standard that had been written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren for a 1937 movie musical called Melody for Two. September in the Rain proved to be a huge hit, introducing the sophisticated and accessible sound of the Shearing quintet to jazz audiences, and beginning Shearing’s years of greatest influence and popularity. Most of the rest of this CD consists of recordings made with this unit. Most notable among these is Lullaby Of Birdland, which Shearing wrote as a theme song for the New York nightclub named for Charlie Parker. Later, after George David Weiss added lyrics, the vocal version was made famous by Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

When Margie Hyams retired from performing to get married, Shearing kept the same instrumental lineup intact, using other vibraphonists including Don Elliott, Joe Roland, and Cal Tjader, with whom he popularized an Afro-Cuban-influenced variation on his sound. Shearing would keep the quintet format until 1979, when he began touring and recording with other groups, most notably with singer Mel Tormé. Although Shearing has slowed down considerably, he is, in his late eighties, still active on the jazz circuit, outliving nearly all of his contemporaries with his musicality, sense of humour, and love for entertaining.

Cary Ginell
– a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism

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