A Memory of George Shearing (8/13/1919 – 2/14/2011)
Of all of the people George Shearing ever met, I am one of them. And while he might have had some vague recollection of my name (my father’s), I am quite sure he would have no recollection of me. But meeting him was my first serious kiss with jazz, and true to the form of my actual first kiss, it was a mortifying combination of tremendously awkward and life altering.
“Say ‘hello’ to Mr. Shearing.” I was about nine, and I was careful to look directly up at him, because my dad’s next question would undoubtedly be, “what color are Mr. Shearing’s eyes?” That was dad’s ruse to get my brother and me to look people in the eye when we spoke to them. He didn’t ask that day, and the only reason I remember the event at all is that later he explained to me that Mr. Shearing was blind, and that he was a famous piano player. I wasn’t falling for it (kidding runs deep in our family) and it took my dad playing me one of Shearing’s records before I opened my eyes to the whole blind piano player thing. I have no idea what the record was, though I remember the song “Nola,” because my Grandmother (New England Conservatory) used to play it all the time. Apparently being blind could weave some serious magic into a tune, swinging even that song into something you actually wanted to hear.
When I was 14, we met a second time. That was “the moment,” not just for the meeting, but for what led up to it. I was sitting in the corner of the main room at a men’s club in San Francisco, having been smuggled in by my dad on a late and mostly deserted afternoon in December. He needed a few moments to meet with someone before we were to rendezvous with my mother and brother for some Christmas related outing. I sat reading, trying to blend and disappear into an enormous couch, until at the far end of the room (which was about the size of a football field), two men started playing two grand pianos. Moving as inconspicuously as a 14-year-old could in a room filled with about a dozen men all somewhere between 60 and 105, I went from my couch to the 50, the 30, the 20, the 10, and ended up standing a few feet behind and to the right of George Shearing.
Two things struck me. The music – sounds I had never heard before (get thee behind me Satan), and to an even greater extent, his spirit. He was having a ball, I mean smiling, grooving, praising the other pianist, and actually laughing out loud every now and again when something in particular struck his fancy. It was infectious, and even the 105 year old guy seemed to regain a pulse. The other pianist was phenomenal as well, but he was working quite a bit harder, flipping through Shearing’s arrangements almost as fast as Shearing was improvising them beyond recognition. At one point Shearing ribbed him and said, “You’re working too hard, I can do this with my eyes closed.”
Their little session lasted about 45 minutes. When it was over, and I had wiped the drool off the front of my dinner jacket, my father walked up, put his hand on George’s shoulder and led him over to where I was standing. Obviously having forgotten our meeting from 5 years back, my father said, “Ed, I would like you to meet Mr Shearing. George, this is my son, Ed.”
Looking directly into his dark glasses, I missed his outstretched hand, suddenly drew a blank on the entire English language, and responded simply and moronically, “Yes.” After what felt like a few hours of complete silence on my part, he graciously rescued the conversation saying that he had heard from my father that I was learning piano. Following his lead, I said, “Yes,” a second time, and after a few more painful seconds managed to expound on that by mentioning that I had one of his song books.
He asked me which one.
The thing was, I had a series of his books, all of which were called “Shades of Shearing.” They were differentiated on the covers only by color, so with fewer brain cells firing than a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber, I blurted, “The red one.” My dad grimaced, and I filled the silence trying to wrestle my loafer and right calf out of my mouth. “The red one,” Jesus H Christ, spoken like the first half of an idiot savant. I would obviously have to cut my hands off and abandon a career in music for something like sales. But Shearing didn’t miss a beat. He named a few of the tunes from that particular volume, told me a couple of his favorites, offered a few tips, and then with a sense of grace and earnestness that actually made me believe him, he said, “I look forward to hearing you play someday.” Magic.
“Yes.” And then I added, “Thank you.” I was smitten.
He wrapped up our “conversation” by telling me and my dad that we should pick up his newest album which had a stunning woman on the cover. He smiled, paused, and then added, “I read Braille, you know.”
The last of many times I saw him perform, he was playing a duo gig at a small club in Redwood City, CA. I can’t remember who the bass player was, but the two of them were on fire (that’s an expression, of course). Shearing played “Lullaby Of Birdland” after a footnote from him that he had written a few hundred tunes, and that about two hundred and ninety-eight of them had gone from “relative obscurity to total oblivion.” But, the highlight of that evening came when he followed up his version of “On a Clear Day, I …Still Can’t See a Damn Thing,” with a stunning, sparse, and haunting solo rendition of “Send In The Clowns,” accompanying himself on vocals. It was riveting. When he finished, the bassist stood up, gave Shearing a huge hug, and near tears, told the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man is such a gift.”
With the bassist hugging him from behind, Shearing put his hands on the bassist’s arms and thanked him sincerely, warmly patting his hands. Then he turned to the crowd and said, “however, if you expect to get any further, you’ll need to buy me dinner first.”
I was sorry to read yesterday that Shearing had passed away (at 91, which goes to show that music can be as good for the soul as LeLanne’s fitness). Understated, forever hipper than most critics gave him credit for, he was an incredible talent. I am grateful for his music, his wit, his class act, his occasional irreverence. I regret not ever having had the opportunity to play for him or formulate a complete sentence in his presence; but above all else, I am grateful for his adept handling of a tongue tied and awestruck teenager, and his indelible introduction to what eventually sparked a lifelong affair with jazz.