Sitting in God's chair: Immortalized in On the Road, George Shearing bebops to own tune
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 6 July 2004)

In Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel, On the Road, that delirious Beat Generation epic, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty hear George Shearing play at Birdland, the famous New York jazz club. It's 1949, and Shearing has been in America only two years. He's still a mildly exotic figure, an Englishman in a stiff white collar, "with a delicate English-summer's-night air about him," Kerouac writes.

The narrator, Sal, the author's stand-in, says Shearing "came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard." As he played "a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast," chords rolling out of the piano "in great rich showers ... Folks yelled Go!" After Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat, "Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. 'God's empty chair,' he said. Dean was popeyed with awe."

Shearing's recently published autobiography, Lullaby of Birdland (Continuum), written with the help of a barely competent British journalist named Alyn Shipton, quotes only a phrase from that tribute. This seems surprising until you understand that the Shearing depicted in On the Road differs sharply from the musician his admirers know. In the hierarchy of jazz, Shearing climbed higher during the last half-century than anyone else born on the wrong side of the Atlantic, but along the way he abandoned the style Kerouac described.

In that same year, 1949, Shearing had his first hit, September in the Rain, a gentle version of a show tune. This suggested that perhaps his role was to provide (his words) "more placid and more melodic" music, an antidote to the frantic energy of bebop. In that chosen niche he succeeded as soloist, composer, leader and accompanist. He's made more than 80 records and had his tunes performed by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker and many others. Lullaby of Birdland, the song he wrote to publicize the nightclub, has become a standard despite its unfortunate words.

George Shearing, OBE, is such an institution that his 80th birthday was celebrated with a concert at Carnegie Hall. This year, perhaps preparing for his 85th birthday next month, he's glanced over his life in a book that's occasionally rueful but mostly high-spirited.

While he carefully avoids even a trace of self-pity, the account of his youth suggests that overcoming his background was as hard as dealing with the blindness that afflicted him from birth. Reading him, one wonders why he didn't die early of intellectual asphyxiation. In the Battersea section of London he was one of the nine children of a man who delivered coal and a woman who drank. No one in the family shared his interests or, apparently, his desire to escape.

He never felt close to either parent, didn't bother returning to England for their funerals, and still doesn't know the cause of his father's death.

He remembers when even the poor accepted the class system as natural law. His father, typically, thought people should remain in their place. He paid a few pounds for a piano with some missing keys and a few more for lessons, but never dreamt of his son achieving success. He was glad that George got work playing in a pub but appalled that after a while he moved to a band that promised more opportunity. He believed that anyone lucky enough to get a job should keep it, as he kept his for 50 years. When George said that he was applying for a BBC audition, his father said, "Son, you know, those jobs are for the nobs, not for the likes of us."

"It's an amazing thing," Shearing writes, "almost as if I were from another family altogether."

His book treats blindness as either a practical problem, which he methodically solves, or a source of comedy. Even so, it becomes clear that just living an ordinary life has been a major project. He could read Braille by age five and as a teenager learned Braille musical notation at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. He discovered that a lot can be done with that technique, but had to accept that he could never join those sight-reading musicians who can begin playing a new score the minute it's put in front of them. You can't read Braille while using your hands to play an instrument; it has to be memorized from beginning to end.

This leads to a discussion of the advantages of blindness, notably its way of intensifying concentration and training memory. Over the years he's learned to recognize voices, remember perfumes and memorize the geography of hotel suites; he's also developed an acoustical sense that tells him the rough dimensions of any room and warns him of major obstacles. He plays bridge with sighted players, using cards that combine ordinary symbols with Braille.

He has only a few harsh words for colleagues (he didn't much like Peggy Lee) and apparently saves most of his hatred for cats. He can't abide them, any of them, because they sneak up on you. When a dog comes around you hear it panting, but "The first thing a blind person knows about a cat is when it's on your lap." His impulse, when a cat jumps on him, is to stand up; the cat's first impulse is to dig in its claws. "They've haunted me throughout my life, cats. I just can't stand them."

Over the years he's developed a repertoire of blind jokes and blind stories. Once, on a London street he knew well, no cars could be heard and he was about to cross the road. A blind man came up from behind and asked to be led across. Shearing took his arm, walked him to the other side, and never mentioned that he, too, was blind. (It would have spoiled the story.)

He enjoys telling us how he's fooled at least some of his friends into believing that when handling money he can tell the difference between a five and a ten by their smell. And occasionally he enjoys startling his audience. Once his band arrived late for a performance and he apologized: "The rain slowed us down a little, but, really, it was entirely my fault. Tonight it was my turn to drive."

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