George Shearing, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ Jazz Virtuoso
George Shearing, the British piano virtuoso who overcame blindness to become a worldwide jazz star, and whose composition Lullaby of Birdland" became an enduring jazz standard, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 91.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his manager, Dale Sheets. Mr. Shearing had homes in Manhattan and Lee, Mass.
In 1949, just two years after Mr. Shearing immigrated to the United States, his recording of September in the Rain" became an international hit. Its success established him as a hot property on the jazz nightclub and concert circuit. It established something else as well: the signature sound of the George Shearing Quintet, which was not quite like anything listeners had heard beforeor have heard since.
When the quintet came out on 1949, it was a very placid and peaceful sound, coming on the end of a very frantic and frenetic era known as bebop," Mr. Shearing said in a 1995 interview on the Web site newyorkcritic.org. What he was aiming for, he said, was a full block sound, which, if it was scored for saxophones, would sound like the Glenn Miller sound. And coming at the end of the frenetic bebop era, the timing seemed to be right."
The Shearing soundwhich had the harmonic complexity of bebop but eschewed bebop's ferocious energywas built on the unusual instrumentation of vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass and drums. To get the full block sound" he wanted, he had the vibraphone double what his right hand played and the guitar double the left. That sound came to represent the essence of sophisticated hip for countless listeners worldwide who preferred their jazz on the gentle side.
The personnel of the Shearing quintet changed many times over the years, but except for the addition of a percussionist in 1953the band continued to be called a quintet even after it became a sextetthe instrumentation and the sound remained the same for almost three decades.
When Mr. Shearing disbanded the group in 1978, it was less because listeners had grown tired of that instrumentation and sound (although the group's popularity, like that of mainstream jazz in general, had declined considerably) than because Mr. Shearing himself had.
I had an identity. I held on to it for 29 years. Eventually I held on like grim death," he told John S. Wilson of The New York Times in 1986. The last five years I played on automatic pilot. I could do the whole show in my sleep."
Shortly after breaking up the group, Mr. Shearing said, There won't be another quintet unless Standard Oil or Frank Sinatra want it." Standard Oil never asked, but in 1981 Mr. Shearing reassembled the quintet for a Boston engagement and a series of Carnegie Hall concerts as Mr. Sinatra's opening act. He returned to the quintet format on occasion after that, but it was never again his primary focus.
His preferred format became the piano-bass duo, originally with Brian Torff and later with Don Thompson and Neil Swainson. He also performed with bass and drums and, on occasion, unaccompanied. In the 1980s and '90s he had great success in concert and on record with the singer Mel Tormé.
By his own estimate Mr. Shearing wrote about 300 tunes, of which he liked to joke that roughly 295 were completely unknown.
He nevertheless contributed at least one bona fide standard to the jazz repertory: Lullaby of Birdland," written in 1952 and adopted as the theme song of the world-famous New York nightclub where he frequently performed. Both as an instrumental and with words by George David Weiss, it has been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bill Haley and His Comets, who improbably cut a version called Lullaby of Birdland Twist" in 1962.