The New York Critic: Interviews

Steve Capra's Interview with George Shearing
April 9, 1995

One of the world's leading pianists, George Shearing is also a brilliant songwriter. He's written, among many other pieces, the jazz classic "Lullabye in Birdland". English by birth, he now divides his time between New York City and The Cotswolds. Steve Capra talked with him during his engagement at Sculler's Jazz Club in Boston.

SC: Sir, would you tell me about your early training?

GS: The teacher, Mr. Newell, who himself was a blind man, would give me twelve bars of a piece of music to learn between one lesson and another - I had one lesson a week. I would learn four bars in the time that I was supposed to learn twelve. I'd take it to my teacher and play it and he'd say "You silly fool, it goes this way." And he'd play it, and then I could play it after him. So, my ear was always very acute. And he told my parents, when I was sixteen, "You know, further study of classical music for this young man would be a total waste of time. It is obvious to me that he's gonna become a jazz pianist."Well, of course, believing, as long as I can remember, in the old philosophy of "Why should any man work when he has the health and strength to lie in bed," I took him very seriously, and I started playing tunes of the day.

Now, if we - for the purpose of going all the way around the Horn for this - if we slip now to 1962, when I went back to that same school, the same teacher was still there And I said to him "Mr. Newell, let me ask you a question. Has it come to your attention that I've been playing concertos with some of the major symphony orchestras in the United States, mostly Mozart, and some Bach." He said "Yes, it has." I said "Do you remember the advise you gave my parents when I was sixteen?" He said "Yes, I do." I said "Armed with the knowledge that I have been playing concerti with some of the major symphony orchestras in the United States, if you had that advice to give today, what would it be?" He said "I suspect your main dollar still comes from playing jazz." I said "Yes, it does." He said "My advise would be the same." Very wise, you know... very, very wise.

Jazz, with me... pop tunes of the day started when I started working in a pub, when I was sixteen. I went from there to a semi-professional band, and then I started to get interested in jazz a little bit there. Then I went with an all-blind band, in 1937, and we played Duke Ellington arrangements and Jimmy Lanceford arrangements. And then I really became interested in jazz.

I still maintain today that you can acquire some of the tools necessary to play jazz technique - a good sense of harmony and all that stuff. But I don't think anybody is ever taught to play jazz. I think somebody's natural jazz feeling is honed by study and exposure to other people who are more proficient than they, and therefore I think that the amount of jazz that can be taught is limited. Generally, academia doesn't like this view. But academia still come into the picture in imparting a thorough knowledge of music and pianistic technique as it applies to classical music.

SC: So, you would recommend classical training?

GS: I recommend, if you have a feeling for jazz, that you never close classical music off, because it give you another dimension... because there are some ballads that are written that are never meant to be played in jazz. And if you get a particular ballad where perhaps the sounds of Debussy come into your mind, and you put those sounds to that tune, and then play jazz when you play the blues or some other tune that lends itself more to jazz, I think you are then showing a complete musical diversification. You are showing that you have an education. You don't play jazz with everything, whether it is appropriate or not, anymore than you would put a Chopin trill in a piece of Bach.

SC: Yes, I understand. Sir, in the past couple of decades, there's been a lot of fusion of jazz and Latin, jazz and rock. Do you admire that?

GS: No, not really. What I feel about it is that one listens and takes - either to remain in the mind or to be included - whatever rhythmic aspect that seems appropriate. I feel that for the most part there isn't an awful lot to be learned in terms of harmony from that stuff. I think we owe some rhythmic aspects to rock, unquestionably, but I don't think we owe any thanks to what rock has taught us in terms of harmony.

SC: Do you write very much, yourself?

GS: Basically, I'm a performer and not a composer. I was asked in 1985 to write something for a choir in Minneapolis, for the Dale Wallen singers. And I thought "Well, there's a guy around called William Shakespeare who's a better lyricist than I will ever know how to be." And I took three Shakespeare sonnets and two Shakespeare songs, set them to music, and my bass player and I played a concert with this choir which included the Shakespeare.

SC: How wonderful!

GS: And I did, of course, Lullaby in Birdland, 1952. I've written probably - perhaps three hundred compositions, and I would say that perhaps two hundred and ninety-five have gone from relative obscurity to total oblivion.

SC: I see... In terms of the development of your interpretive technique, what influences do you let in? What direction do you push yourself toward?

GS: Well, classically, I go towards Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Hindemitt, Stravinsky... and there's a great mass of historic period contained therein. I wouldn't take a tune like "I'm Old-fashioned", and play it in the style of Stravinsky. I may have some Mozart in it, or some Bach, or something that will sound - to illustrate the point - old-fashioned.

In the jazz world, Hank Jones has always been my mentor. I heard him first in 1948, when I played a club in New York called The Three Deuces. I was playing intermission piano opposite Ella Fitzgerald, who had Hank Jones on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and a left-handed drummer named Charlie Smith. And when it was Hank's night off, after I knew Ella's show, I would get somebody to take my intermission job, so I could play the show For Ella - just get my feet wet a little more in jazz. I had been paying jazz for a number of years in England. I came over to the states in 1947.

SC: Sir, how would you describe your jazz style? Would you describe it as a classical jazz style?

GS: No. People often ask me "Are you a jazz pianist?" I say "No, I'm a pianist. I happen to play jazz." I have a style that people have grown to call the Shearing Sound. 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 know as "be-bop". I used the vibraphone to play the melody on the top, the guitar to play the melody an octave below, and I played those two melodies an octave apart and three or four other notes in between, making 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 be-bop era, the timing seemed to be right. I think that in this world, even outside of music, there are so many times when we just luck-up on something.

SC: Sir, do you still play for yourself, for your own pleasure?

GS: Not very much... not very much. I hear people who practice a number of hours a day. A few weeks ago, I came out from an operation, and normally, you'd go back to the piano and slog for a couple of hours, and put your fingers back into shape. I came here Wednesday and this is the first job I played since I came out of the operation. My bass player said "You been playing?" I said "No." He said "You're very lucky."

Now, I had Dick Hymen, who's this wonderful jazz pianist, on a disc jockey show that I hosted in '85, on WNFW in New York. I said "Dick, don't you feel that there is enough extant literature out there in the classical field, whereby piano students no longer need Hannon and Shurchurney and all the exercise jokers?" So he said "No, I couldn't disagree with you more." He said "I play them every day." And you can tell. I mean, he's Mr. Perfect - he never makes a mistake. He has a flawless technique.

SC: Sir, if you had to choose a highlight of your career, what would it be? Your favorite moment?

GS: I think it would be the idea of knowing that I can appear in Carnegie Hall with Dizzy in 1948... and knowing that I've played for three presidents... knowing I've played command performance for Queen Elizabeth... knowing that I played with a number of symphony orchestras throughout the country. And all this from a little blind kid born on the wrong side of the tracks - in Battersea, in Southwest London - whose parents were very quick to say "Oh, we don't get those kind of jobs, son. They're for the nobs, you know." I mean, they didn't discourage me, but they didn't encourage me. They read very little beyond the headlines of a newspaper. In fact, all this is going to come out in my biography, one day - I'm starting on it. I'm about sixteen, I guess, now, in my biography.

SC: Is there anything in particular you'd still like to do?

GS: I maintain that if some of the composers - like Bach, and, to some degree, Mozart - were they alive today, would be fine jazz musicians. I say that about Bach, in particular, because, if we look at his background, and his biography... he had two wives, twenty kids... he was kicked out of churches for being too harmonically radical... he was not only a devout Lutheran, but he was also a beer-drinking German. If they're not the characteristics of a jazz musician, you tell me... I'd like to take some of that stuff, and write some stuff of my own... put it with a rhythm section - and I don't mean a big, hulking, clumsy drum set, I mean little finger cymbals, little hand drums... and bass, and guitar, and piano... a little chamber group... a small contingent of woodwinds... add a small contingent of strings.

SC: How very interesting, yes. I'm sure it'll be very well received.

GS: I don't know if I'm ever going to get to it, but that is one of the things I really want to do.

SC: Sir, do you have any advice for young musicians, either in terms of developing their talent, or in terms of developing their career? Not always the same thing...

GS: The guitar player who played with Count Basie was named Freddie Green. He's passed on, now. And somebody once said to him "Freddie, do you have any advice for a guitar player playing with a big band?" And Freddie said "Yes. Put your tuxedo in the case last."

Seriously, I think the music business has reached such a stage of deterioration in most parts, particularly in jazz and popular music. There was a time when, if you could play and you had a bio, and you had a picture, you could get started. Somebody would give you a recording, and you made your way gradually.

Today, you've got to have a video for an audition. And, you know... "Who have you been? Who have you been recording with? We can't take anybody who doesn't have a name." And you've got to really put out a lot of effort. When I first came into the business, you would get a modest contract; you'd go into a studio. The recording company would pay all the expenses - for people working with you, and the studio, and the promotion. Now, you wouldn't collect royalties until those expenses had been reimbursed through sales. Now, people I work with are still doing that, but if someone wants to get started today, they almost have to take a finished product into recording company, and have it ready for them to merchandise.

So, if you're going into the business today expecting to make a fast buck, I think you better look for something else to do. I think that if you are content to live on hamburgers and beans, and money is your last worry in the world, and you don't mind long hours, being away from your family, suffering the indignity of playing with people talking, and you're purely background music... I think the privilege of music has been very seriously abused in this country. I think that if you are prepared for all that, and that kind of life, being away from your family and everything, and the only thing that really matters to you is music, then, by all means, go into it. If you're not, seek some other means of livelihood, and treat music as a hobby.

Dedication from the day you go into it until the day you die - including interviews, being on exemplary behavior in terms of public relations... I think these are the things that really matter, Steve.

SC: You just mentioned that the industry is deteriorating. What about musically?

GS: I think those of us who really believe in it will not permit it to deteriorate. But there are no Cole Porter's around today... no Jerome Kern's...


Take me back to the Interviews page, s'il-vous-plait!