You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: George Shearing
December 1, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This blog, on the bebop playing of pianist George Shearing, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
George Shearing: The Price of Success
Pianist George Shearing is another great jazz musician who is widely misunderstood – in part, because of his success.
That’s "Conception," a Bebop tune Shearing wrote and recorded in 1949. Shearing had a unique approach to bebop composition, and this tune was recorded by many well-known musicians. We'll talk more about Shearing’s short - and largely forgotten - bop career in this blog.
Blind from his birth to a poor family in London in 1919, Shearing 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 eighteen he was recording in a kind of Art Tatum-Teddy Wilson style, and quickly gained fame in the U.K., and even had his own BBC radio show.
An early advocate for Shearing’s talents was Leonard Feather, who is best known today for his music journalism. Many people forget that the British-born Feather was also a composer and a very capable pianist. Here’s “Squeezin’ the Blues,” a novelty piece he recorded on piano – with Shearing on 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, was the first book on the new music, and was innovative in that it included musical analysis with notation, and brief bios of notable bop musicians.
With Feather’s encouragement, Shearing moved to New York in 1947, and he soon found himself engrossed in bebop, and started and started composing bop pieces in his own distinctive style.
Here’s “How’s Trix,” which he recorded in April of 1950:
And yet another, "Good To The Last Bop," from February of 1949, on which Shearing plays accordion again, as well as the piano solo (vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams plays the piano chords behind his accordion):
All of these tunes demonstrate Shearing’s deep grasp of bebop. Listen not only to the sheer number of notes, but also to their unpredictability.
For musicians, notice the unexpected turns in the chord progressions, and departures from standard form. "Conception," for instance, has A sections that are twelve bars each, not the more common eight.
And "Good to the Last Bop" has a form of 16 bars, then 8 bar bridge, then 16 bars again, and measures 9-12 of each 16 bar section feature chords descending by thirds (hear ast 0:07-09, and 2:05-6), very rare in this time period!
"Conception" quickly became popular with bebop improvisers, as it’s a challenging piece that moves quickly through a number of keys. It’s also interesting because it starts off like it’s in the middle of something, and has a lot of momentum.
But "Conception" isn’t the tune Shearing is best known for. In fact, some doubt whether he wrote it at all.
I've been reading Peter Pullman's excellent and thoroughly researched biography of Bud Powell, who is one of my "piano gods." In a footnote, Peter reports that some musicians who knew both Powell and Shearing, among them pianist Claude Williamson and bassist Al McKibbon, believed Shearing was not capable of writing "Conception," and suggest Powell was a more likely author for the tune.
These are misunderstandings which need to be laid to rest.
What happened? First of all, Shearing’s interest in bebop was eclipsed by his success playing in a different style. His light-hearted, medium-tempo ballad “September in the Rain,” recorded in 1949 at the same session as "Good to the Last Bop," became a pop mega-hit which sold nearly a million copies, even
though he plays a perfectly fine jazz solo on it, as you can hear:
And his best-known composition, “Lullaby of Birdland” from 1952, may celebrate Charlie Parker and nightclubs where bebop was played, but it’s really a light swinger, not a bebop tune.
On the heels of this success, Shearing became very active in the Latin jazz movement, especially from 1953 onwards, when Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza and others were regular members of his group. (More on this another time.) Innovative vibraphonist Gary Burton was even a member of Shearing's quintet in 1963 and 1964.
But from the late 1960s onward - a long stretch of time - Shearing became identified with a kind of "jazz lite"- very popular, but not respected by hard-core fans and musicians. He also accompanied singers like Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé, and did many gigs in hotels as opposed to jazz clubs, which is a different kind of career. So in a sense, he took himself out of the mainstream of jazz performers.
The long and short of it is that many jazz performers developed the impression that he was a kind of cocktail pianist, and either forgot or never knew that he started as quite a hardcore jazz player.
As for "Conception," it became closely associated with Miles Davis. The trumpeter recorded it several times, and he created his own version of it for the Birth of the Cool sessions he led in 1949 and 1950, which he called "Deception."
Miles’s version adds several twists, or, one might say, "deceptions": First of all, he uses his own theme, not Shearing's, but it is written to fit Shearing's chord sequence.
Second, Miles's 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 one's heard it a few times. The theme really begins at the 9 second mark.
But “Deception’s” debt to Shearing’s earlier composition is evident. If there’s any doubt of that, note that the first surviving recording of Miles playing it, in 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 at the beginning, and Miles's "Deception" at the end! In fact 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, DC (although this wasn’t released until 1982). He then recorded it for Verve Records in 1955:
Don’t get me wrong – Bud was a genius, but this tune – with its tricky head and modulations - is not what Bud was about as a player. 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 still sounds distinct.
And in any case, Shearing published sheet music for "Conception" in 1950!
So why would it make sense to questions Shearing's authorship in the
and to say that Bud Powell wrote the piece, when Bud wasn't associated with the piece and didn’t record it until years after Shearing? To me, it’s a bit baffling.
And why don’t we pay proper tribute to George Shearing? To my mind, it’s a case of what can happen in jazz - that when somebody becomes very popular, people start tearing him or her down.
Shearing had the double problem that he didn’t continue to play this kind of material. Or I should say he rarely did – if you look, you’ll see 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 kind of material, or with hardcore jazz gigs, after the late sixties.
So a kind of resentment developed because he was so hugely popular. But guess what? He was also hugely talented; give the man his due.
George Shearing, in memoriam: he passed away at about 91 ½ years old in 2011.
See you on the next blog!
© 2012 WBGO
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