Lullaby of Birdland: The Autobiography of George Shearing

by George Shearing with Alyn Shipton

Published by Continuum

272 pages, 2004


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Birdland and All That Jazz

Reviewed by H. V. Cordry

 

As a jazz pianist hoping for success in America, George Shearing had to overcome a handicap most American musicians regarded as insurmountable: that of having been born in England.

Shearing had been taught, however, by all the legendary jazz pianists, not in person, but by way of their records.

Being blind from birth -- in his view, a lesser handicap than his nationality -- he was never taught how to play the piano, instead he had developed the ability to replicate on the keyboard whatever he heard someone else play. So as a teenager he was playing the breaks and solos of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller, and assiduously studying their styles.

Lullaby of Birdland is Shearing's pleasantly conversational memoir. Here Shearing speaks of this ability to play back whatever he heard as only one of several "advantages" of being blind; another being an extra degree of concentration. His years reading Braille notation further trained and strengthened his memory. Reading piano parts in Braille meant learning (memorizing) first the left-hand part and then the right-hand part and then, finally, playing the two parts simultaneously.

As his 85th birthday approaches -- Shearing was born August 13, 1919 -- he continues to perform, and in Lullaby of Birdland he remains unremittingly upbeat and positive, still able to find humor even in blindness. His pleasure is almost palpable when he recalls a blind man accosting him on a corner in London and asking Shearing to help him cross the busy street. Being Shearing, he did not even consider mentioning that he was blind, too, but simply took the man's arm and led him out into the traffic.

As Shearing explains it, being blind might have been more difficult for him if he had ever not been blind. Being blind from birth, he began adjusting to blindness from the first, and never fully grasped what it would be like if he were able to see. So it seemed relatively normal to him, being a child among other children, to join them in running about in the streets, with his companions offering occasional promptings regarding dangerous or deadly obstacles.

Fortunately, Shearing encountered American jazz at an early age. What first impressed him, he recalls, was its spirit. He says he "loved" the American sound of jazz: bands without the smooth vibrato to which the British were accustomed, and whose brass and reeds "cut right through the ensemble."

This early affinity for American jazz, combined with the good sense to select only the best jazz pianists as the models he would emulate set him squarely on the path that he has followed since matriculating from the Linden Lodge residential school for the blind and taking his first job playing piano in the local pub.

Lullaby of Birdland, with all its pleasures, is to some extent the fruit of a collaboration between Shearing and the British jazz writer and broadcaster Alyn Shipton, author of Fats Waller and A New History of Jazz. Together they have produced a book which is well and tightly edited, which never bogs down in unnecessary detail or strays waywardly from the matters at hand, and in which Shearing consistently sounds like himself and not an edited version.

Individual chapters are devoted to his early years, to his recollections of New York's Fifty-second Street in its heyday, to his quintet and the "Shearing sound," and to his musical partnership with Mel Torme.

The pages are suffused with warmth and good humor, though Shearing does remark -- facetiously, of course -- that even at 84 he still "hates" Fats Waller for the size of his hands.

A 25-track double companion CD, Lullabies of Birdland, will be released to coincide with the publication of this book. | March 2004

 

H. V. Cordry is a former professor and veteran journalist, now retired.