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George Shearing On Piano Jazz

George Shearing shares a laugh with his fiancé Ellie Geffert in 1976.
Central Press
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George Shearing shares a laugh with his fiancé Ellie Geffert in 1976.

This week's Piano Jazz was originally broadcast in 1987, when pianist George Shearing made his second appearance on the program.

The late George Shearing was a pianist, arranger and composer widely recognized for inventive, orchestrated jazz. Born the youngest of nine children to a working-class London family in 1919, Shearing, who is blind, received his only formal musical education through four years of study at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. After a stint playing piano and accordion in neighborhood pubs (at the equivalent of $5 a week), he joined an all-blind band in the 1930s, and soon made his first performance on BBC Radio.

His more than 300 compositions include the jazz standard "Lullaby of Birdland," and his accolades include invitations to play for three U.S. presidents and the Queen of England.

On this episode of Piano Jazz, Shearing makes his second appearance on the program with host Marian McPartland. He begins with an English tune, "Little Man You've Had a Busy Day," and continues with an Art Tatum-inspired arrangement of Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays." Shearing and McPartland have fun discussing their own attempts to decipher virtuoso pianist Tatum's chord voicings. In his playing, Shearing is known for his use of parallel block chords or "locked hands," a technique that allows his bandmates to play in tight unison, creating the much-heralded "Shearing sound."

Shearing invites McPartland to play along with him on an unusual rendition of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," which he prefaces with, "I made an attempt to have it sound a little bit like a piece of lead-up by [Franz] Schubert." McPartland joins him for the duet, and the resulting arrangement transforms the original's bouncing tempo into a lush, tender piece that McPartland rightfully calls "gorgeous." She follows with her solo version of the Rodgers & Hart tune "Glad to Be Unhappy."

On another Cole Porter tune, "After You," Shearing plays solo and sings. Then he and McPartland get together for a final duet on a lively rendition of "Indiana."

"I knew him in England, and he played well-known clubs in London, where he doubled with Stephane Grappelli," McPartland recalls. "Jimmy [McPartland's husband] and I heard his quintet when he came to the States. That was really something! And I thought he brought some real sophistication to the show."

George Shearing died of heart failure Feb. 14, 2011 in New York City. He was 91.

Originally recorded in 1987.

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Grant Jackson