Sir George Shearing obituary

One of the great jazz pianists and bandleaders, he wrote Lullaby of Birdland

The pianist George Shearing, who has died aged 91 of heart failure, was the first postwar British jazz musician to move permanently to the US and build a solid career there, effectively clearing the way for a host of other players to follow the same path. This was in 1947, at a time when Shearing and his countrymen, prevented by a Musicians' Union embargo from hearing the best American musicians in person, tended to regard these stars as supermen, wearing out their recordings, yet never imagining that it might be possible to perform alongside them in New York. However, Shearing put such negative thoughts aside and took the decision to emigrate.

His success was speedy and spectacular. By 1949, he had hit on the formula that brought him worldwide fame and colossal record sales, forming his quintet, later a sextet, with its trademark "Shearing sound" and setting in train a performing and composing career – his great hit being Lullaby of Birdland – that would broaden to take in collaborations with popular artists and classical ensembles.

The youngest of nine children, Shearing was born in Battersea, south-west London, into a poor, working-class family. His father delivered coal and his mother cleaned trains by night, having cared for her children during the day. Blind from birth, George showed musical aptitude, memorising tunes he had heard on the radio and picking them out on the family's piano, taking lessons from a local teacher and then continuing his studies for four years at the Linden Lodge school for blind children in Wandsworth.

Offered university musical scholarships, he turned them down in favour of paid work as a solo pianist in local pubs, starting when 16 at the Mason's Arms, Battersea, and concentrating first on popular songs and then branching out into jazz. He achieved a degree of prominence with Claude Bampton's newly formed, all-blind stage orchestra in 1937, joining as second pianist: press coverage of the time describing this as "a phenomenal venture".

A fellow band member, the partially sighted drummer Carlo Krahmer, encouraged Shearing's jazz interests. "I'd spend hours and hours at Carlo's house and he'd play things that introduced me to the styles of many great players," he recalled. Spurred on by access to Krahmer's record collection, Shearing formulated an approach heavily influenced by Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller, plunging into the London after-hours club scene and sometimes playing alongside visiting American stars such as the tenor-saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, while observing Waller at first hand. He made his first solo radio broadcast in 1938 and began to record regularly, either as a soloist or with groups led by Vic Lewis and the top players of the day. In 1941 he met and married Trixie Bayes.

With what now appears to be dazzling speed, he moved through bands and small groups fronted by prominent leaders including the clarinettist Harry Parry, Bert Ambrose, Harry Hayes and the French jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, with whom he recorded frequently, Grappelli being at that point resident in London as a refugee from German-occupied Paris.

So complete was Shearing's mastery of jazz piano that the Melody Maker poll voted him the top British pianist for seven years in a row. Aware of being the proverbial big fish in a rather small local pond, Shearing accepted an invitation from the British writer Leonard Feather, a friend from London who had already emigrated, to visit New York in late 1946. He stayed for three months and recorded a trio date for the Savoy label. Encouraged by this experience and enthralled by what he had heard, Shearing moved for good in December 1947.

By now heavily into bebop, he began to attract attention as the intermission pianist at the Hickory House on 52nd Street, sometimes acting as Ella Fitz gerald's accompanist on her pianist's night off before finally landing a quartet engagement at the Clique Club with the fine clarinettist Buddy De Franco. Set to record, De Franco had to drop out for contractual reasons and Feather came to the rescue, suggesting that Shearing might try a quintet instead, adding guitar and vibraphone to the usual piano, bass and drums trio.

Voiced in block chords with Shearing using the "locked-hands" style pioneered by the pianist Milt Buckner, where the melody is harmonised in the right hand and echoed in the left, the quintet's new approach caught on immediately, their recording of September in the Rain, made for MGM in February 1949, selling 900,000 copies. Where bebop had seemed over-complex to many listeners, here was a musical style that sounded modern and new, but was easy to enjoy. By now one of the hottest tickets in jazz, Shearing's quintet toured endlessly, recorded incessantly and played residencies at the best clubs in every major American city.

Gradually, Shearing began to introduce a classical element to his concerts, sometimes performing as a soloist with orchestras, and with the quintet featured for the rest of the concert. He also formed a big band, appeared in the film Jazz on a Summer's Day (1959), and recorded with Latin ensembles, adding a conga player to the quintet. Beauty and the Beat (also 1959), his album with the singer Peggy Lee, was another runaway success. Credited with some 300 compositions of his own, Shearing gained his greatest success with Lullaby of Birdland (1952), commissioned as the theme music for a radio programme based around the famous Birdland club in New York. "I always tell people it took me 10 minutes and 35 years in the business," he said, adding that the other "299 compositions enjoyed a bumpy ride from obscurity to oblivion."

By 1968, Shearing's nimble, witty jazz style was showcased in smaller lineups, with trios giving way to duos, this pared-down format allowing him a free rein to move from Bach to bebop in a single number. He also formed a vital partnership with the singer Mel Tormé, their collaboration resulting in Grammies in 1983 and 1984, and he briefly reformed his quintet in 1994 for recordings.

He returned regularly to Britain, once with the ex-Count Basie singer Joe Williams, another time with the vocalist Carmen McRae and latterly in a duo with the bassist Neil Swainson, appearing with Tormé and the BBC Big Band for a special 80th birthday show in 1999. He performed for three US presidents and for a royal command performance, and was especially touched when the George Shearing Centre, providing facilities for disabled people in Battersea, was named in his honour.

After suffering a fall in 2004, Shearing largely retired from public performance. Although a naturalised American citizen, he never wavered in his affection for Britain, returning most summers to the Cotswold house he had bought with his second wife, the singer Ellie Geffert, avidly following cricket on BBC Radio's Test Match Special and indulging his penchant for English humour. Appointed OBE in 1996, he was knighted in 2007, and his autobiography Lullaby of Birdland (written with the journalist Alyn Shipton) appeared in 2004. Shearing is survived by Ellie, whom he married in 1975, and his daughter, Wendy, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1973.

• George Albert Shearing, pianist, composer and bandleader, born 13 August 1919; died 14 February 2011

• This article was amended on 16 February 2011. The original said George Shearing was knighted in 1992. This has been corrected


Peter Vacher

The GuardianTramp

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