Jazz great George Shearing dies at 91

Pianist wrote 'Lullaby of Birdland', partnered with Mel Torme

George Shearing, the esteemed British jazz pianist who composed the standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” died of congestive heart failure Feb. 14 in New York. He was 91.

Blind from birth, Shearing enjoyed a long recording and performing career that stretched into his 80s. His bop-flavored quintet, which employed the noted vibraphonists Gary Burton and Cal Tjader and guitarist Joe Pass, was a popular club and concert attraction for decades.

He was also known for his peerless accompaniment of such pop and jazz vocalists as Nat King Cole (his labelmate at Capitol Records in the ’50s and ’60s) and frequent partner Mel Torme.

Born in London, Shearing began playing piano at the age of 3. His only formal training came during four years at a school for the blind.

He was influenced by such jazz predecessors as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum and was recognized for his virtuosity by his late teens. His “locked hands” technique of parallel melodies emulated the work of Milt Buckner. He won Melody Maker’s poll as the top British pianist for seven consecutive years.

During the war years, he was partnered with Stephane Grappelli, the violinist for guitar legend Django Reinhardt’s famed quintet.

Emigrating to the U.S. in 1947, Shearing cut his first quintet sides for Discovery in 1949; the unit’s first hit was a version of Harry Warren’s “September in the Rain.” He wrote “Lullaby of Birdland,” his ode to the jazz oasis on New York’s 52nd Street, in 1952. He signed to Capitol in 1955 and remained with the label until 1969.

Shearing later recorded prolifically for such specialist labels as MPS, Concord and Telarc. He remained active until he was sidelined by a fall at his home in 2005.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2007 for his contributions to music and also performed for three U.S. presidents at the White House.

Shearing is survived by his second wife, singer Ellie Geffert, and a daughter from his first marriage.

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