George Shearing enjoys an international reputation as a pianist, arranger and composer. Equally at home, on the concert stage, as in jazz clubs, Shearing is recognized for inventive, orchestrated jazz. He has written over 300 compositions, including the classic “Lullaby of Birdland,” which has become a jazz standard.
Shearing was born in 1919 in the Battersea area of London. Congenitally blind, he was the youngest of nine children. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains at night after caring for the children during the day. His only formal musical education consisted of four years of study at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. While his talent won him a number of university scholarships, he was forced to refuse them in favor of a more financially productive pursuit…playing piano in a neighborhood pub for the handsome salary of $5 a week! Shearing joined an all-blind band in the 1930’s. At that time he developed a friendship with the noted jazz critic and author, Leonard Feather. Through this contact, he made his first appearance on BBC radio.
In 1947, Mr. Shearing moved to America, where he spent two years establishing his fame on this side of the Atlantic. The Shearing Sound commanded national attention when, in 1949, he gathered a quintet to record “September in the Rain” for MGM. The record was an overnight success and sold 900,000 copies. His U.S. reputation was permanently established when he was booked into Birdland, the legendary jazz spot in New York. Since then, he has become one of the country’s most popular performing and recording artists. In 1982 and 1983 he won Grammy Awards with recordings he made with Mel Torme. Mr. Shearing was the subject of an hour-long television documentary entitled “The Shearing Touch” presented on the Southbank Show with Melvyn Bragg on ITV in the UK.
Three presidents have invited Mr. Shearing to play at the White House... Ford, Carter and Reagan. He performed at the Royal Command Performance for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. He is a member of the Friars Club and the Lotos Club in New York and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco.
His awards and honors are many. In May 1975, he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. In May of 1994, Hamilton College in upstate New York awarded him another honorary doctorate in music. DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana presented him with an honorary doctorate of music on June 1, 2002. He received the prestigious Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans in 1978 and a community recreational facility in Battersea, south London, was named the George Shearing Centre in his honor. In May of 1993, he was presented with the British equivalent of the Grammy…the Ivor Novello Award for Lifetime Achievement. In June of 1996, Mr. Shearing was included in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List and on November 26, 1996 he was invested by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his “service to music and Anglo-US relations.” He was presented the first American Music Award by the National Arts Club, New York City, in March of 1998.
In 1999, his 80th birthday was celebrated in England where he played to a sold-out house at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Also appearing with him was the BBC Big Band, the strings of the London Symphony, Dame Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. BBC Radio 2 presented a 2 1/2-hour “Salute to Shearing” in honor of his birthday.
The following year another sold-out house at Carnegie Hall was treated to his birthday celebration featuring the George Shearing Quintet with Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Dr. Billy Taylor, the John Pizzarelli Trio, Tito Puente and Peter Schickele who brought a special greeting from PDQ Bach!
Shearing and his wife, Ellie, divide their time between their apartment in New York and a house in the Berkshires near Tanglewood. Their favorite kind of evening? A quite dinner at home with friends followed by a serious game of bridge!