George Shearing, who died on February 14 at the age of 91, had a lively sense of humour and it amused him to characterise himself as a one-hit wonder. He liked to introduce his theme tune, Lullaby of Birdland, by saying: 'I have been credited with writing 300 songs; 299 enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.'
If Lullaby is his most lasting memorial as a composer plenty of his improvisations and arrangements of other people's tunes have stood the test of time. He had another huge hit with Harry Warren's September in the Rain, and for much of his career was one of the most commercially successful jazz musicians.
It was the delicate balance he struck between the genuinely creative and the artfully commercial that gave him his unusually broad-based appeal. People who baulked at the complexities of bebop warmed to the 'Shearing sound' and while serious jazz fans might offer faint praise for his talent, they could never entirely write it off.
Shearing's was a talent which matured, and it is in recordings made from the 1970s onward, and in particular with singer Mel Torme, that much of his best work is found.
Born in Battersea to working class family, Shearing showed early musical promise, despite being blind from birth. He left school at 16 to work as a pub pianist before joining a band of fellow blind musicians. A lucky break in BBC radio helped him make a reputation for himself, and he spent the second world war years working with, among others, Stephane Grappelli, who was in London when war was declared.
In 1947 Shearing moved to New York and quickly became a successful sideman, playing with many of the jazz artists he admired. In 1949 he formed his own quintet with an unusual line-up featuring vibraphone and guitar. Almost at once he hit big with September in the Rain, and the band continued to enjoy success, peaking in 1952 with Lullaby of Birdland. In 1956 he became a US citizen.
Until he retired from public performance in 2004 Shearing kept up a busy schedule as both a soloist and a collaborator. His most consistent partnership was with Torme, but his 1981 duet album with pianist Marian McPartland, Alone Together, is one of the highlights of his career as a jazz improviser. In 2007 he was knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
Shearing recorded prolifically over seven decades but these three albums represent some of the best of his recorded work.
Verve Jazz Masters: George Shearing (1996, Verve): the Shearing quintet recordings made between 1949 and 1954 and including the hit versions of September in the Rain and Lullaby of Birdland, along with Conception. Swing meets bebop and an artist creates a unique and hugely popular signature sound.
An Evening with George Shearing and Mel Torme (1982, Concord): the Torme-Shearing partnership at its best with bassist Brian Torff on a good selection of standards including It Might as Well be Spring and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
Duets (2007, Concord): a well-chosen sampler of Shearing's work as a collaborator with artists ranging from fellow pianists McPartland and Hank Jones to guitarist Jim Hall and vocalists Ernestine Anderson, Carmen McRae, and Torme.