a jazz pianist hoping for success in America, George Shearing
had to overcome a handicap which most American musicians regarded
as insurmountable - the handicap of having been born in England.
He had been taught, however, by all the legendary jazz pianists,
not in person, but by way of their records. Being blind from
birth - in his view, a lesser handicap than his nationality
- he had developed the ability to replicate on the keyboard
whatever he heard someone else play. So as a teenager he was
playing the breaks and solos of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and
Fats Waller, and assiduously studying their styles.
this pleasantly conversational memoir Shearing speaks of
this ability to play back whatever he heard as only one
of several "advantages" of being blind; another
being an extra degree of concentration. His years reading
Braille notation further trained and strengthened his memory.
Reading piano parts in Braille meant learning (memorizing)
first the left-hand part and then the right-hand part and
then, finally, playing the two parts simultaneously.
As his 85th birthday approaches-Shearing was born Aug. 13,
1919 - he continues to perform, and in this book he remains
unremittingly upbeat and positive, still able to find humor
even in blindness. His pleasure is almost palpable when
he recalls a blind man accosting him on a corner in London
and asking Shearing to help him cross the busy street. Being
Shearing, he did not even consider mentioning that he was
blind, too, but simply took the man 's arm and led him out
into the traffic.
As Shearing explains it, being blind might have been more
difficult for him if he had ever not been blind. Being blind
from birth, he began adjusting to blindness from the first,
and never fully grasped what it would be like if he were
able to see. So it seemed relatively normal to him, being
a child among other children, to join them in running about
in the streets, with his companions offering occasional
promptings regarding dangerous or deadly obstacles.
Fortunately, Shearing encountered American jazz at an early
age. What first impressed him, he recalls, was its spirit.
He says he "loved" the American sound of jazz:
bands without the smooth vibrato to which the British were
accustomed, and whose brass and reeds "cut right through
This early affinity for American jazz, combined with the
good sense to select the only the best jazz pianists as
the models he would emulate set him squarely on the path
that he has followed since matriculating from the Linden
Lodge residential school for the blind and taking his first
job playing piano in the local pub.
Lullaby of Birdland, with all its pleasures, is to some
extent the fruit of a collaboration between Shearing and
the British jazz writer and broadcaster Alyn Shipton, author
of Fats Waller and A New History of Jazz. Together they
have produced a book which is well and tightly edited, which
never bogs down in unnecessary detail or strays waywardly
from the matters at hand, and in which Shearing consistently
sounds like himself and not an edited version.
Individual chapters are devoted to his early years, to his
recollections of New York's Fifty-second Street in its heyday,
to his quintet and the "Shearing sound," and to
his musical partnership with Mel Tormé.
The pages are suffused with warmth and good humor, though
Shearing does remark - facetiously, of course -- that even
at 84 he still "hates" Fats Waller for the size
of his hands.
Note: A 25-track double companion CD, Lullabies
of Birdland, will be released to coincide with the publication
of this book.