Friday, February 18, 2011

Jazz legend George Shearing dies

(Ed. note: It's been a long week. This is a sad post, marking the death of a music legend, but let's also take the time to bask in some great music. -- MJWS)

I heard this on the radio the other morning, and it shadowed the beginning of the day in sadness:

Announcing the death due to heart failure at Shearing's home in Manhattan, his agent, Dale Sheets, said: "He was a totally one of a kind performer. It was something wonderful to see, to watch him work."

I had the good fortune to catch Shearing a few times, both in club and festival settings, and it was always a delicious treat, the crowd hushing to the point you could hear a pin drop, settling in for the unique Shearing sound.

The Shearing sound — which had the harmonic complexity of bebop but eschewed bebop's ferocious energy — was built on the unusual instrumentation of vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass and drums. To get the "full block sound" he wanted, he had the vibraphone double what his right hand played and the guitar double the left. That sound came to represent the essence of sophisticated hip for countless listeners worldwide who preferred their jazz on the gentle side.


By his own estimate Mr. Shearing wrote about 300 tunes, of which he liked to joke that roughly 295 were completely unknown.

He nevertheless contributed at least one bona fide standard to the jazz repertory: "Lullaby of Birdland," written in 1952 and adopted as the theme song of the world-famous New York nightclub where he frequently performed. Both as an instrumental and with words by George David Weiss, it has been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bill Haley and His Comets, who improbably cut a version called "Lullaby of Birdland Twist" in 1962.

And who else remembers the television commercial (for a Pioneer LaserDisc), featuring Ray Charles, delivering the punchline "I liked it so much, I got one for my friend, George Shearing" -- the joke being Shearing was also blind.

RIP George Shearing, it was great having you around.

And here's a personal favorite:

(Cross-posted at The Garlic.)

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