Pianist George Shearing, who composed the iconic jazz standard “Lullaby of Birdland,” has earned countless awards for his contributions to jazz, plus several honorary degrees and respect from his peers as a pop and symphony performer and composer.
Shearing, a London native who was born blind, led the George Shearing Quintet and other notable combos in the 1950s and 1960s. He has entertained Queen Elizabeth II and was invited to play for U.S. Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. "Lullaby of Birdland" is one of his 300 compositions.
Shearing performed with Mel Torme in a Royal Command Performance in 1987: "When we were preparing to be received afterward (by Queen Elizabeth II), I was told that the directive is: Do not extend your hand until the queen extends hers. I said, well, either somebody's going to have to cue me or she'll have to wear a bell. . . . But somebody did cue me," the blind musician said.
Shearing's encounter with the queen took place more than 30 years after he acquired American citizenship. Before arriving in the United States he had already reached the heights of his profession in England, but his first year in New York found him starting from scratch; it was not until the formation of his quintet in 1949 that he burst into the national consciousness. The quintet stayed together for 29 years.
Asked about his career eight years after the quintet’s breakup, Shearing said: "I feel like I'm playing a little better…. To reduce yourself to being one-fifth of an entire group, as important as that may have been with all the intricate voicings I arranged for it, was effectively limiting the full scope of being a pianist.” He is famed for the “Shearing sound,” the locked-hand chording so closely identified with his playing.
The 1980s were years of rare diversity for Shearing. Recording for Concord, he made solo LPs and duo sets and has enjoyed a partnership with Mel Torme (in person and on records) that produced their Grammy-winning albums, “An Evening With George Shearing & Mel Torme” and “Top Drawer.” Other notable collaborators over the years include Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Dakota Staton, Nancy Wilson and Hank Jones.
"Lullaby of Birdland: The Autobiography of George Shearing" was published in 2004. In 2006, he became Sir George Shearing, saying at the time of his knighthood that it was "amazing to receive an honor for something I absolutely love doing.”