17 February 2011

God's empty chair

George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, has just passed away, aged 91. He was born British and born blind; from 1947 he was based in the United States. His New Zealand connection came through Julian Lee, the blind multi-instrumentalist born in Dunedin and now living in Australia. In the 1960s Shearing – along with another music legend – was instrumental in getting work for Lee in Los Angeles. Lee took quite a bit of persuading, he recalled in a 2000 interview with Radio New Zealand’s Haydn Sherley:

In 1960 George Shearing came over [to Sydney], and he worked at Channel 7 where I was staff arranger. And he being in a similar position – he doesn’t look where he’s going either – we got talking, went to lunch, and I played him a few of my arrangements. He said, ‘You gotta come over to the States man, you’re wasting your time.’ I said, ‘Not on your life, thanks, I’m doing fine.’ So I didn’t do anything about it.

But in ’62 Sinatra came over and I went to a cocktail party because I was doing some writing for what was then Coronet Records, the Australian record company, which later on became CBS. Frank said, I’d like to have a chat with you, so if you could come back stage this evening before the show, while the support act is we can spend the first hour having a talk.

So I did. I had to borrow Alan Nash’s trumpet – he was the lead trumpet player – so I could get into the place, into the back door, through the security. And Frank says, ‘I’ve heard some of your things, I want you to come over to the States, in fact you have to do that because you’re a talent we want to foster.’ So I said, Well, what senor commands I must do – so I did, in ’63, I went over.

Once in the US, Shearing sponsored Lee with the immigration department, and got him to write arrangements and Braille his parts. “Nobody else could do that, and it was easily proved.” Lee arranged tracks on the 1960s Shearing albums Deep Velvet and Here & Now! Shearing also helped Lee into production work. “And Frank opened the door to all sorts of people for me, said Lee. “I didn’t do any actual work for him but I met a lot of very influential people, like Johnny Burke and oh Nelson Riddle.”

Here, Lee is pictured in 1976 with a stellar New Zealand rhythm section, Frank Gibson Jr and Andy Brown. In 2000 he was asked what the standard of LA session musicians was like. “Frightening,” he replied. “I can remember the first session I did for George. I thought I’d go down early to do this session, because I’m a new chum. And when I got down to the studio at 9.15am for a 10.00am recording session, the whole band was there warming up. What is this? … Then, we did the first 3 hours, and they all applauded me. Then they left, before I could say goodbye: the string players had gone to another!

George Shearing’s biggest hit was probably ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ (1952), a swing tune so perfect it seems to have written itself. On paper it looks quite challenging, with plenty of 9ths, but playing it on the piano in E minor, your hands just seem to fall into the right chords and voicings: just as they must have when Shearing wrote it. Singers also relish the song, as this clip of Ella Fitzgerald performing it shows.

Another who celebrated George Shearing’s delicate mastery was Jack Kerouac in On the Road (written in the late 40s, published 1957). His famous description of Shearing playing in a nightclub is a classic piece of bop prosody:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o'clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer's-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that's all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to "Go!" Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. "There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!" And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn't see. "That's right!" Dean said. "Yes!" Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. "God's empty chair," he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe. This madness would lead nowhere.

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