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Pianist George Shearing is that rare thing, a European jazz musician who became a household name in the US, as a result of the "Shearing sound"—the recordings of his historic late 1940s quintet. Together with his unique "locked hands" approach to playing the piano, Shearing's quintet with guitar and vibraphone in close harmony to his own playing revolutionized small group jazz, and ensured that after seven years as Melody Maker's top British pianist, he achieved even greater success in America. His compositions ...
Pianist George Shearing is that rare thing, a European jazz musician who became a household name in the US, as a result of the "Shearing sound"—the recordings of his historic late 1940s quintet. Together with his unique "locked hands" approach to playing the piano, Shearing's quintet with guitar and vibraphone in close harmony to his own playing revolutionized small group jazz, and ensured that after seven years as Melody Maker's top British pianist, he achieved even greater success in America. His compositions have been recorded by everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Miles Davis, and his best known pieces include "Lullaby of Birdland", "She" and "Conception". His story is all the more remarkable because Shearing was born blind. His candid reminiscences include a behind the scenes experience of New York's 52nd Street in its heyday, as well as memories of a vast roll-call of professional colleagues that includes all the great names in jazz.
Being born blind, there was nothing for me to get used to about blindness, because it was there from the start. I didn't know, and still don't, what having sight is like, but from earliest childhood I've also been aware that there isn't such a thing as a blind world. There's a sighted world to which all blind people have to adapt and adjust. This book is about my path through that sighted world, a world perceived mainly through sound, as well as touch, taste, and smell. In due course, as an adult, I eventually came to the conclusion that even if I were offered the chance of sight, I would refuse it, because it would be so shattering to see everything around me that I had only known as sounds up until that point. I'd have to go through a whole new process of education, because everything from reading to writing is entirely different. I'm used to hearing cars go by, not to seeing them flash in front of my eyes.
There are things I'd love to be able to do, such as to get up from a group of friends and say, "I'll see you guys later on," and mean exactly that. Then to be able to move off, totally on my own, to go somewhere else. Of course, all blind people can move with a degree of independence, but not with the ease of a sighted person, and on strange territory it's hard to do it at all-we wait for somebody to be with us. Maybe we miss a lot, but for the most part that's more than made up for by what we have to replace sight-the ability to conceptualize the world through sound, or our other senses, and the close connection with all those other people who help us get our bearings in unfamiliar surroundings, whatever they may be.
Living in a world in which sound plays the most important role has always been a great stimulus to me as a musician.
There were no other musicians in our family, to the best of my knowledge, and I'm the youngest of a family of nine. When I was born, at our house in Battersea, in South London, the oldest ones had already left home, so I remember only four of my sisters, Margaret, Dorothy (whom we called Dolly), Mary, and Lily, and my brother, Jim.
Dolly did domestic work somewhere. Margaret worked in a grocery store. Lily and Mary seemed to have been married forever. Both Mary and Dolly were primarily in the business of raising children, and it seemed that their main preoccupation was to try their damnedest to populate the entire neighborhood. Certainly Dolly, who is over ninety years of age and still living as I write this, had a raft of children-eleven or twelve-and grandchildren to match, so she had a really huge family. Margaret, who was younger, although she's also in her nineties now, was the one who tended to look out for me.
Jim worked on the buses. He was a bus conductor, the character who went around saying, "Fares please!" The passengers would give him a penny or twopence or however much the fare was. Although he did the kind of conducting where a baton was absolutely useless, I kid people quite a bit about him when the topic of conversation turns to the performances of figures like Daniel Barenboim or André Previn.
I say, "My brother was a conductor, you know."
They say, "Really?"
"Yes, on a number 49 bus."
To be honest, I'm not sure at this distance in time whether he worked on a bus or a tram, but he was most certainly a conductor.
If pressed, Jim could probably have cranked out a chorus of Just a Song At Twilight on the clarinet. Actually, although I've said there were no other musicians in the family, at a very early age my sisters would come down on Sunday morning and try to play Chopsticks. Then I would try to play it after them, while we were waiting for the eggs and bacon to be cooked. I've always referred to them as Sunday morning piano players. Just as we have Sunday drivers now, back in the 1920s there were Sunday morning pianists in Battersea. Sometimes the piano, as ancient and as much of a relic as it was, was all that the player deserved and sometimes it was even more than the player deserved!
We lived in a two-storey house at 67 Arthur Street in Battersea. I can still remember every step of the way to it. You'd turn right off Battersea Park Road, coming from Latchmere Road, into Alfred Street, and then a little twist to the right before heading left into Arthur Street. It's still there today, but sometime after I left, the name was changed to Rawson Street. The whole area was a reasonably poor district and there was a railroad line running right along the bottom of our little street, which was almost a cul-de-sac. The houses were very close together and there was really no garden at all, just a little backyard, the total extent of which was only a few feet. Over the back wall was the next backyard, which was part of Alfred Street. And it would be that way on all sides.
Upstairs was Mum and Dad's bedroom, and two other bedrooms. Downstairs were the kitchen, the dining room, and the living room or "parlor," as it was known in those days. One of the bedrooms became my room as we got older, and it remained my room alone until I finally left home. I had my gramophone and piano in the parlor. We had a piano in the house from my early childhood-or rather we had something which had the hallmarks of a piano in that there were keys on it (85 rather than 88). I believe it was either a Broadwood or a Schlitz. The make didn't matter. What really mattered was the number of keys which were, to all intents and purposes, "unemployed." My parents bought that piano for me.
I seem to remember my Dad saying something about paying five pounds for it and paying three pounds to have me taught to play it. So, it looks like the total sum of my parents' investment into the music business was eight pounds, which in those days was equivalent to about $32. I would say that the reward, although they weren't around, unfortunately, to reap too many of the benefits, was rather handsome.
As I said, Arthur Street was almost a cul-de-sac. The houses were close by to the street and the toilet was in the back garden. That wasn't too bad in the summer. It had a chain to pull, the proper plumbing and everything, but it was in the garden nevertheless, so in the winter it wasn't the most pleasant thing in the world to have to go out there in the middle of the night. The house had no bathroom. We would put a round tin tub in front of a coal fire to take our weekly bath, whether we needed it or not. It was one of those tubs with two handles that you put the washing in, and you kept filling it from the kettle.
My father, James Philip Shearing, was born in Westminster, London, in 1872. The Shearing family originally came from Winterbourne Earls in Wiltshire, where my great-grandfather, Philip George Shearing, was born in 1815. There had been Shearings in that village since the sixteenth century, but my great-grandfather Philip and his young wife Charlotte, whom he had married in Wiltshire, came to London, where he worked in the Artillery Brewery in Westminster, until he was carried off by the great cholera epidemic of 1854. My grandfather was twelve at the time, but he remained in London, so mine was the third generation of Shearings to be Londoners.
In some of the things that have been written about me, my father has been called a coal miner. He's also been called a coal porter, but America already had one of those! Actually, he was a coal man, which meant he put coal into hundredweight or two hundredweight sacks and delivered them to wealthy homes and places of business. I always said jokingly that for his trademark he should have had a question printed on the back of his cart that read, "Do you prefer your coal à la cart or coal de sack?"
He would get up at somewhere between four thirty and five o'clock in the morning. I don't remember if he got his own breakfast or whether my mother got breakfast for him, but he would leave the house about six, get to the firm, probably between six thirty or quarter to seven and he would come home about five thirty or six at night. For his job, he would wear corduroy pants. Of course, they'd be covered in coal dust and just as he'd go to sit down on a chair at the end of the day, and God knows the chairs in our house were not luxurious in any way, shape, or form, my mother's voice would be heard saying, "Now, Jim, go and change your trousers before you sit down." So he had to go into the bedroom and change his pants, and then come back in, sit down, and have a little bit of dinner.
Later, when I started working at the pub at the age of sixteen, shortly after dinner we would leave the house and go to the pub and get there about seven thirty at night. I would work there until ten. We'd come home, go to bed, and then the next day Dad would be up about four thirty again, and the same routine would be repeated. This happened six days a week. It's amusing to me nowadays to listen to people talking about their three-day-a-week jobs and their holiday for this and sick-pay and sick-time-all of which I feel is a human right-but the discontent that happens when it doesn't appear automatically is something to behold when you come from a family like mine where there was a very hard day's work six days a week.
Regarding my Dad's salary, for all those hours, he would make three pounds a week. When I first came to the United States in the 1940s, there were four dollars to the pound, so that's a weekly salary of twelve dollars. And when he retired he received a pension from the firm of one pound a week. Of course, at 65 he qualified for an additional old-age pension from the state that came to about five shillings-that's much less than a pound, and worked out at about a dollar. However, if he earned any more money on top, that would be taxed. It was calculated by what was called the "means test." In other words, if you had the means to live or even to buy a few crusts of bread above and beyond what you were given as an old-age pension (which you couldn't live on, anyway), you'd be taxed on it.
This came about because, in the 1930s, during the worldwide Depression, economic conditions were so bad that steady work was difficult to find and keep. So the Government of the day decided they had to help the unemployed on a national basis and in 1931 introduced a statutory test of an applicant's income-what was known as his or her "means"-in order to calculate the amount of assistance that they were to receive. But what was originally introduced to help working people eventually became a hindrance, and by the time my father retired, the test was being applied for pensions as well as for unemployment allowances, so the resources of the entire household had to be disclosed, to work out what tax (or occasionally, benefit) was due. This "means test" was always a bug to the working-class people because they weren't even allowed to enjoy their old-age pension without the Government claiming some of it back again.
Dad worked for the same firm-Cockerell's-for close on half a century, and he had a fierce pride. After my mother's death he went to live with my brother, Jim, and his wife, Dora. If you could get by Jim's clumsiness, you could probably find a joke in what Jim was saying somewhere. And I think he tried to show it to my father when he went into the bedroom one morning and said, "Come on, you lazy old man, it's time to get out of bed."
Most people would take that as a joke, but Daddy cried to me about that. He said, "I worked fifty years, all but three months, for the same firm, and your brother called me a lazy old man."
The thing about the Shearing family is that there is a degree of fragility in the make-up of their personality. If you knock it in the wrong place, it chips or breaks, just like my father did when my brother tried to crack that joke with him.
Instead of laughing and saying, "Well, why should a man work when he has the health and strength to lie in bed?" or passing it off in a similar way, it hurt him very, very badly and he cried.
Through all this apparent strength and bravado, we break down quite easily. Say the wrong thing, and there will be a very deep hurt as if you intended to hurt us, and while we know that most thinking and caring and feeling human beings don't want to hurt anybody unless they have a deep hatred, that doesn't lessen the possibility of being hurt by the wrong thing said at the wrong time.
When I was about eleven or twelve, my father would always enter the horse that his firm gave him to use for the coal delivery into the annual horse show in Regent's Park. I used to go on the cart and sit up with him all night long and help polish the harness and make the little rosettes and things to put on the cart and around the horse. It was very exciting. We'd set off about six o'clock in the morning, taking our food with us to go around Regent's Park for the show.
I'd have a little harmonium and I'd sit up and play on the cart while we were driving around to get to where the judge was. Sometimes it could be quite a heart-breaking thing. You'd spend days on preparing the horse, the little rosettes and so on, until everything would be shiny and polished. All kinds of elbow grease went into shining up the harness and the brasses, so you'd get there and you'd know that the horse is going to win. You'd just know it. My father had fifteen first prizes, so he got to know when he thought he was in the market for first prize or second prize or whatever. But occasionally, you'd get to about fifteen yards from the judge, and the unpredictable would happen-the horse would shy, or become unruly.
And you'd hear: "Disqualified!"
Just like that!
All that work down the drain.
My mother was born Ellen Amelia Brightman, on January 14, 1874, at 8 Rockingham Street, Trinity Newington, London. Her family came originally from Daventry in Northamptonshire. For much of her adult life, she cleaned railroad trains at night and tended the family in the daytime. Until around the time I was born, she worked on the main line trains at a depot not too far from where we lived in Battersea. She actually had a tremendously hard life. Having nine children to care for and with me being blind, it was very rough on her and she really wasn't strong enough to take it. Regrettably, early in life, she turned rather heavily to the bottle and became an alcoholic. I think it was because of her drink problem that I never touched alcohol until I was about forty-five years of age. I can remember walking along the street in Battersea, with my sister and I each holding on to one of my mother's arms, and she'd say, "I need a drink!"
And we'd say, "No! No!"
We could tell she didn't need any more, but she'd insist, "I need a drink!" And she wouldn't be satisfied until she went into the pub and got one. Mainly she just drank beer, but occasionally she turned to whisky.
Excerpted from LULLABY OF BIRDLAND by GEORGE SHEARING ALYN SHIPTON Copyright © 2004 by George Shearing and Alyn Shipton. Excerpted by permission.
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1: Early Days in Battersea
2: My first school
3: Linden Lodge
4: Claude Bampton and the All Blind Band
5: The War Years
6: America and Fifty-Second Street
7: Moving to the States
8: The First Quintet
9: The Latin influence
10: Friendships and musical partners
11: Concerts and albums
12: Shearing, Shakespeare and other compositions