Sir George Shearing with the Montgomery Brothers by William Claxton
Sir George Shearing, OBE (August 13, 1919 – February 14, 2011)
For a long stretch of time in the 1950s and early ’60s, George Shearing had one of the most popular jazz combos on the planet — so much so that, in the usual jazz tradition of distrusting popular success, he tended to be under appreciated. Shearing’s main claim to fame was the invention of a unique quintet sound, derived from a combination of piano, vibraphone, electric guitar, bass, and drums. Within this context, Shearing would play in a style he called “locked hands,” which he picked up and refined from Milt Buckner’s early-’40s work with the Lionel Hampton band, as well as Glenn Miller’s sax section and the King Cole Trio. Stating the melody on the piano with closely knit, harmonized block chords, with the vibes and guitar tripling the melody in unison, Shearing sold tons of records for MGM and Capitol in his heyday.
Shearing, who was born blind, began playing the piano at the age of three, receiving some music training at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in London as a teenager but picking up the jazz influence from Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller 78s. In the late ’30s, he started playing professionally with the Ambrose dance band and made his first recordings in 1937 under the aegis of fellow Brit Leonard Feather. He became a star in Britain, performing for the BBC, playing a key role in the self-exiled Stéphane Grappelli’s London-based groups of the early ’40s, and winning seven consecutive Melody Maker polls before emigrating in New York City in 1947 at the prompting of Feather. Once there, Shearing quickly absorbed bebop into his bloodstream, replacing Garner in the Oscar Pettiford Trio and leading a quartet in tandem with Buddy DeFranco.
In 1949, he formed the first and most famous of his quintets, which included Marjorie Hyams on vibes (thus striking an important blow for emerging female jazz instrumentalists), Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy on bass, and Denzil Best on drums. Recording briefly first for Discovery, then Savoy, Shearing settled into lucrative associations with MGM (1950-1955) and Capitol (1955-1969), the latter for which he made albums with Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, and Nat King Cole. He also made a lone album for Jazzland with the Montgomery Brothers (including Wes Montgomery) in 1961, and began playing concert dates with symphony orchestras.