Deep Dive: Giving Pianist George Shearing His Proper Due, With a Look Beyond ‘Lullaby’

May 10, 2018

George Shearing became identified, even in the headlines of some of his 2011 obituaries, as the composer of “Lullaby of Birdland.”

Like many a trademark hit, this could be a mixed blessing. In his autobiography, Lullaby in Rhythm, Shearing struck a perfect chord of ambivalence: “I've played it so many times that it is possible to get quite tired of doing so — although I never tire of being able to pay the rent from it!”

There was much more to this fine pianist and composer, but to learn about that one has to go back to some of his early recordings — like “Conception,” which Shearing wrote and recorded in 1949. Here is a live clip of the tune from the following year.

Shearing had a unique approach to composition, and this tune was recorded by many well-known musicians. Beboppers loved improvising through the form of “Conception,” as it’s a challenging piece that moves quickly through a number of keys. Its A sections are 12 bars apiece, rather than the more common eight, and it begins as if it’s in the middle of something, with a lot of forward momentum. All of which has led to some controversy over the authorship of the tune — a point that illuminates some of the biases around Shearing’s work.

Blind from his birth to a poor family in London in 1919, he showed talent on the piano from around age three. He was classically trained, and developed a strong interest in jazz after hearing recordings by Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

At 16, Shearing left school to play in a London pub. By 18 he was recording in a kind of Tatum-meets-Teddy Wilson style, and quickly gained fame in the UK, even leading his own BBC radio show.

One early and important advocate was Leonard Feather, best known today for his jazz journalism. Feather, also British-born, was also a composer and a capable pianist. Listen to “Squeezin’ the Blues,” a novelty piece he recorded on piano — with Shearing playing accordion — in 1939.

Feather moved to the United States later that year, and became one of the first writers to pay serious attention to the nascent bebop movement. His 1949 book, Inside Be-Bop (later re-titled Inside Jazz), was the first book surveying the new music. (That same year, Billy Taylor published a “How To” book for pianists seeking to play bop.) Inside Be-Bop was innovative in that it included musical analysis with notation, along with brief bios of notable bop musicians.

With Feather’s encouragement, Shearing moved to New York in 1947. He soon found himself engrossed in bebop, and began composing bop pieces in his own distinctive style. Shearing discusses some of those early compositions in his book:

I actually started composing during the war. …“Delayed Action” was actually one of the first that I wrote and went on to record. And then came a string of others, including “Bop's Your Uncle.” I wrote a number of pieces dedicated to the members of my family, at least a couple named after Wendy, and one for Trixie called “How's Trix.”

All of these tunes demonstrate Shearing’s deep grasp of bebop. Listen closely to any of them and you’ll notice not only the sheer number of notes, but also their unpredictability. Musicians should be able to pick up on the unexpected turns in the chord progressions, and various departures from standard form.

On some of these early efforts, he continued to play accordion. “Good To The Last Bop,” from February of 1949, is one of these — though Shearing also takes the piano solo on the tune. (Vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams provides chordal accompaniment.)

“Good To The Last Bop” also has an unconventional form: 16 bars, followed by an eight-bar bridge, followed by another 16 bars. Measures 9-12 of each 16-bar section feature chords descending by thirds — a rare compositional device at the time!

This is also the period that Jack Kerouac chose to write about to exemplify the intensity of the jazz experience in his iconic novel On the Road. In a scene depicting Shearing on the bandstand, Kerouac notes how “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 passage continues:

 

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.

The reference to “his chords” has to do with Shearing’s legendary prowess playing fast passages made up of chords rather than single notes. (He does this about two minutes into the clip of “Conception,” above.) Since Fats Waller reputedly once declared Tatum “God,” it’s high praise indeed for Kerouac and his friend Dean to apply that epithet to Shearing.

The reference to Shearing’s “cool and commercial” period is striking, given that Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951 — only a couple of years after those “great 1949 days,” and a year before the publication of “Lullaby of Birdland.” What it indicates is how quickly the popular perception of Shearing had shifted.

We can see reverberations of this shift in the debate around “Conception.” I’ve been reading Peter Pullman’s excellent and thoroughly researched biography of Bud Powell, one of my own piano gods. In a footnote, Peter reports that some musicians who knew both Powell and Shearing — among them bassist Al McKibbon and pianist Claude Williamson — believed Shearing was not capable of writing “Conception,” and suggest Powell was a more likely author for the tune. (Peter includes this footnote because he wants the reader to know about the controversy; I’ll argue that these musicians were wrong.)

I’ve already provided several examples of advanced bop compositions by Shearing that nobody has ever disputed. So why would anyone doubt that he could have composed one more in a similar vein?

What happened here, partly, is that Shearing’s accomplishments in bebop were eclipsed by his success in a different area. His light-hearted, medium-tempo version of the songbook ballad “September in the Rain,” recorded at the same 1949 session as “Good to the Last Bop,” is a case in point. He plays a perfectly fine jazz solo on the tune — one impressive block chord passage begins around the two-minute mark — but the first thing to know about it is that it sold nearly a million copies.

Then of course there’s the best-known Shearing composition, “Lullaby of Birdland,” from 1952. It may celebrate Charlie Parker and the nightclubs where bebop was played, but it’s really a light swinger, not a bebop tune. More than a hit song, “Lullaby of Birdland” became a standard, especially after it was outfitted with lyrics by George David Weiss (credited as “B.Y. Forster,” for copyright reasons). If you listen to jazz singers at all, you have probably heard a version of this song, by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé or dozens of others. Here is the original Shearing. (His block chord passage occurs around 1:40.) 

There was yet another chapter: from 1953 on, Shearing became very active in the Latin jazz movement. His Latin group featured vibraphonist Cal Tjader briefly, and other noted Latin artists. Here they are on a Timex television special: Shearing with McKibbon, Johnny Rae on vibes, Toots Thielemans on guitar (later known as the leading jazz harmonica player in the world), Rusty Jones on drums and Armando Peraza on congas. (Please disregard the date provided; this is from April 1958.)

Shearing maintained a high level of artistry in his band into the next decade; vibraphonist Gary Burton was a member of his quintet from 1963 to ’64, composing and arranging all of the material on the album Out of the Woods.

But from the late ‘60s onward — admittedly, a long stretch of time — Shearing became identified with a kind of “jazz lite.” It was very popular, but not respected by the more hardcore jazz musicians and fans. He also accompanied singers like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé, and did many gigs in hotels, which is a different sort of career from playing in jazz clubs. So in a sense, he took himself out of the mainstream of jazz performers.

The long and short of it is that many jazz musicians developed the impression that he was a breed of cocktail pianist. They either forgot or never knew that he started as quite a serious jazz player. Ironically, it has been my experience that “classical snobs” who don’t like jazz do tend to like this side of Shearing, because it’s pleasant and, they’ll add, not trying too hard to be “serious music.” (Don’t get me started on that one.)

As for "Conception," it became closely associated with Miles Davis, who recorded it several times. Davis also created his own version of the tune for his Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949 and 1950, calling it "Deception."

Here I’ll digress to note that Jeff Sultanof, editor of the published Birth of the Cool scores, and Rob and Doug Duboff of ejazzlines.com, publisher of the parts, were able to study the original handwritten music. They note that the intro, first chorus and coda are in an unknown handwriting, whereas the middle (primarily backgrounds for the solos) is definitely in Gerry Mulligan’s hand.

It’s important to point out that Mulligan was a fine composer, and did more writing for these sessions than anyone else — far more than Gil Evans, for example. But there are good reasons to conclude that Miles himself wrote “Deception”; that it was written down by an unknown friend of his; and that the middle was then filled out by Mulligan, following the innovative structure already set forth in the first chorus.

Returning to the recording, Miles’s version adds several twists, or “deceptions.” First of all, he uses his own theme, not Shearing’s, but it is written to fit Shearing’s chord sequence. Judging from Shearing’s autobiography, he didn’t quite “get” what Miles was up to: “Miles Davis once made a very famous recording of my tune ‘Conception.’ He was a master of playing the wrong bridge, or making up his own, which is what he did on that piece.”

But Miles’s piece is a complete rewrite. He doesn’t just make up a bridge, and certainly doesn’t play the wrong one. In addition to a totally new melody throughout, his tune has two extra bars in each A section. And finally, Miles starts with an eight-bar introduction, which is really the last eight bars of the theme — but since one doesn't know that on first listen, it’s impossible to follow the form until hearing it a few times. The theme really begins at the nine-second mark.

Still, the debt that “Deception” bears to “Conception” is evident. If there’s any doubt of that, hear the first surviving recording of Miles playing it, on a radio broadcast with Stan Getz, J.J. Johnson, and Art Blakey, in February of 1950, a month before the studio version was recorded:

On this version, they play Shearing’s theme for the first two A sections, then switch (at 0:23) to Miles’s “Deception” for the bridge and the last A! And it’s Miles’s form, with the extra measures, that they use for the solos. Miles used this same arrangement again when he recorded “Conception” in the studio for Prestige in 1951.

As for Powell, his first surviving version of “Conception” is from 1953, at a club date in Washington, D.C. (although this wasn’t released until 1982). He then recorded it for Verve Records in 1955:

Bud was a genius, don’t get me wrong — but this tune, with its tricky head and modulations, is not what he was about as a composer. In fact, there is no Bud Powell piece that sounds anything like “Conception.” Shearing’s compositional style does have elements in common with Lennie Tristano’s, but it still sounds distinct. And in any case, Shearing published sheet music for “Conception” in 1950.

So why question Shearing’s authorship, arguing that Bud Powell wrote the piece, when it fits clearly within Shearing’s recorded and published output — and when Bud wasn’t associated with the tune, didn’t record it until years after Shearing, and never claimed it was his? To me, it’s a bit baffling.

But it does fit within a pattern. I think it’s a case of what can happen when an artist gets stereotyped by a big “hit.” Erroll Garner, a terrific pianist who at his best was a quite uninhibited improviser (I recommend his solo works, such as Solo Time), was similarly typecast as the author of “Misty.”

Maybe you’ve heard radio and TV comedy innovator Stan Freberg’s hilarious track “The Great Pretender,” in which a jazz pianist grudgingly working a commercial recording session name-checks both Shearing and Garner, and sneaks in a quotation of “Lullaby.”

As he settled into an elder statesman role, Shearing worsened his own situation by eschewing his more innovative material. Not entirely – you’ll find that once in a while in his later recordings, he’ll play one of these wild bop pieces in the middle of a set. But he wasn’t primarily associated with this strain of material, or with hardcore jazz gigs, after the late ‘60s.

Perhaps it’s possible to hold several images at once: the genteel melodist, and the ecstatic bebop wiz, and the passionate Latin-jazz artist. It’s even possible to hold all these sides in equal esteem. And when you do that, Shearing becomes an artist of rare breadth — and a far more impressive figure than his popular image would suggest.

Dr. Lewis Porter has published acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young, and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a prolific pianist whose latest album as a leader, Beauty & Mystery (Altrisuoni), features Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci and Tia Fuller.

Deep Dive with Lewis Porter carries on a project originally known as You Don't Know Jazz! with Lewis Porter, produced for WBGO by Alex W. Rodriguez and Tim Wilkins.