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Pianist and composer Sir George Shearing has died, at age 91.
Born blind, Shearing was a self-taught musician, the youngest of nine children of a London coal man. In a career spent almost entirely in the U.S., he won fame, fortune and eventually a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for a lifetime of elegant jazz.
Shearing will always be associated first and foremost with his composition "Lullaby of Birdland." He wrote the piece in 1952 about the jazz scene on 52nd Street in New York City. It was very quickly covered by jazz stars of all styles.
But he was far from a one-hit wonder. During a career that stretched from his native London during the blitz of World War II to his adopted home of New York — from which he toured the globe — Shearing projected not only graceful song but an elegant personal style. His touch was instantly recognizable for its nuance and articulation. His solos often employed rich block chords: harmonies voiced in notes played simultaneously, bunched together.
Shearing assumed no gap between classical technique and jazz swing, yet he never let virtuosity stand in the way of expression. His first big hit, a version of the song "September in the Rain," actually preceded "Lullaby of Birdland." It was recorded in 1949 and introduced a new attitude in jazz, which came to be called "cool."
While Shearing loved bebop — the fast, virtuosic style developed in the 1940s — he recognized there was a market for something less frenetic. He called "September in the Rain" an antidote to the the music he heard when he immigrated to Manhattan after World War II.
"We came in at the end of a very frantic era — the bebop era, where they take a tune like 'Indiana' [hums melody] and make a very complex [hums rapid improvisation]," he told NPR's Bob Edwards in 1995. "Make up a very complex melody out of it. And so, when you get to the end of this frantic era and somebody sits down with vibes and guitar and a well-written bass line and all in very good order, it's a lot easier on the ear."
Shearing's vibes, guitar, bass, drums and piano quintet popularized an easier, gentler jazz. But it was never cloying or "smooth" — always tasteful and musically substantial.
Within the commercial conventions of the 1950s and early '60s he was an experimenter, embracing Latin dance rhythms, working with new instrumentalists including vibists Margie Hyams and Cal Tjader, harmonica player and guitarist Toots Thielemans, and conguero Mongo Santamaria. He also forged enduring collaborations with musicians such as violinist Stephane Grappelli, bassist Brian Torff and singer Mel Torme.
Torme spoke highly of Shearing. "Georgie is absolutely right that we share a great love of things English," Torme said. "Georgie was English; he's as American as apple pie these days; and I'm American but I love the English ... This is one of the loveliest exports ever to come from over the sea."
George Shearing came a long way in life, from poor but honest beginnings in London to being celebrated on the international stage. He never allowed his blindness keep him from anything. Whether at the birth of the cool, playing Latin rhythms and conceiving chamber jazz, Shearing was a musician with a gift for reaching listeners beyond category.
Shearing died of congestive heart failure Monday morning in New York City, his management confirmed. But up until his death, at almost every performance, he played a certain lullaby.
Felix Contreras contributed to this report, and is the voice heard on air.