New sound -- and a new world -- for George Shearing

For many years, the George Shearing Quinted was a mainstay of the jazz world, specializing in its own brand of crisp, sophisticated sound. At its center was Shearing himself, a dedicated craftsman who traveled to the United States from his native England in 1947 and has been heard from continuously since.

In recent times, Shearing has moved to a more intimate musical profile, disbanding his quintet and appearing with only a bass player to share the spotlight. His reputation has continued to ride high, and he has felt freer than ever to explore the depths of his sound and his style. He has also kept up his strong interest in classical music, playing with symphony orchestras around the United States, and experimenting with music that blends jazz and classical idioms.

He is something of a TV personality, too, having appeared on a wide selection of talk and variety shows; and he has devoted a great deal of time to teaching at jazz schools and workshops.

Shearing now records for the Concord label, which carries his latest album, "Blues Alley Jazz" -- a potpourri ranging from new material to "Up a Lazy River." The following interview was conducted at Shearing's apartment in New York.

On your latest album, you do some singing. Isn't this a fairly new direction in your career?

I've been singing for just a few years, professionally -- that is, on records and on the air. You have to listen to yourself a lot first, to learn how consistent you are, and how good your intonation is. You have to learn a lot of things about yourself.

Self-examination is an important part of jazz, then?

Your performance depends on your mental and physical attitude. If you have a feeling of well-being, and technical ease as well, you'll come out fine. And that goes for any movement, whether it's walking or conversing, or whatever. What counts is: Have you been taking care of yourself? Or are you carrying around extra physical and mental baggage? That's why I never like to argue before I perform. And the same goes for downers like alcohol.

Lately you have been working in a duo, with just a bass player at your side. Why did you disband your quintet?

It comes back to mental attitude. For the past few years, the quintet was on automatic pilot.Just coasting along.

You see, the larger the group, the more you must be fettered by preconceived arrangements -- and the less chance there is for on-the-spot creativity. . . .Of course, the members of the quintet were always playing choruses and going into improvisation. But if a member of the audience requested something one of us didn't know, we couldn't comply.

Now I work with a bassist who has very good ears, and can sight-read anything you put in front of him. If the tune is of a fairly simple nature, and doesn't go on for five years, chances are he'll pick it after the first time. So I have nobody else to worry about. . . . And, of course, the logistics have an ease and lack of complexity. I have a greater opportunity to address myself to the task of being a pianist, rather than a bandleader. . . .

Your greatest hit is probably "Lullaby of Birdland," written in 1952. Is it true you composed this classic in ten minutes?

Yes, over a steak in my dining room in New Jersey. But I always tell people, it took me 10 minutes andm 35 years in the business. Just in case anybody thinks there are any totally free rides left, there are none!

How did you start in the music world? Were you gifted at an early age?

Yes, I think so. When I was about three or four years of age, I used to toddle over to the piano and pick out the tunes I'd just heard on the old crystal set.

A lot of parents wish their children would approach the piano so enthusiastically.

Success usually comes from personal incentive somewhere along the way. We get mixed up between parents who want their children to play, and parents who assist their children with lessons because the childrenm want to play. I think we have to differentiate between the ego of the parents and the desire of the child.

Of course, I don't know anybody who loves to practice. But there's a difference between kids you have to carry over to the piano and those who toddle over by themselves.

And you were one of the toddlers.

Yes. Also, while there are many activities of play that the blind can involve themselves in, it must be fewer than those available to the sighted. So if there's any kind of musical incentive at all, it is automatically increased by the slight lessening -- however slight -- of other available activities.

You weren't just interested, though. You were talented.

For as long as I can remember, someone could play a ten-note chord, and I couild play it right after them -- they never had to spell it out. I have that kind of ear. Natural ability like this is born; the degree to which one can utilize it can be cultivated. Certain things within the ear can be cultivated.

Did you take lessons at that time?

From age five to age 12, in a kind of day school. The supervision there was less close than in the residential school I attended between 12 and 16. When anyone was watching, we'd play Liszt or whatever the teacher wanted. But then we'd get permission to use the piano for half an hour, and we'd play tunes of the day, or jazz. I'd even use some of my practice time for that, if there was nobody around to police me. But always, it was a desire to do something at the piano. It wasn't a matter of "how can I get out of it."

So you always leaned to improvisation?

Oh, yes. My teacher would give me eight bars to learn by the next lesson, but I was a terrible Braille music-reader. I'd come back with only two bars learned.The teacher would call me a silly fool and play the other six bars, and thenm I'd be able to play them. That was how my ability worked -- though since then, I've learned enough Braille music to be able to read and memorize concerts and all kinds of things.

Did you have to be a sort of childhood rebel, to be able to play more and more of your kind of music?

I never looked at it like that, in those days. You see -- I could pontificate on this subject for hours -- discipline is necessary. It disturbs me considerably when an 18- or 19-year-old comes to me, before ever having met me, and addresses me as George. I am bothered by the assumption that no degree of seniority is necessary to gain equality. That leads to the attitude of, "Who says I have to abide by the rules?" And it potentially leads to a kind of lawlessness.

In terms of music, it leads to people asking, "Who says a consonant chord is 1-3-5, and a dissonant chord is 1-2-3 or 1-2-4? What is consonance and what is dissonance?" When you ask questions like these, nothing is taken for granted and accepted without examination. After this, all kinds of rules can be questioned, including social rules. Where does it end? What are the consequences, in terms of one human being having respect for another, and doing what the other would like -- including a parent who wants the children home at a reasonable hour?

But in jazz, isn't it good to experiment -- to question all the assumptions, to challenge the old concepts?

Within reason. But if everyone did it, we'd have nothing traditional -- only freedom jazz. Jazz has its Bach, too, in the traditionalists. There's a traditional bass line, and so forth. The bass player who's traditionally trained will addm to his fundamentals . . . but will maintain enough of the traditional line to make it acceptable for most ears. If everybody played everything with complete abandon, we could get to a point where we didn't have a tune to base our improvisations on!

That has happened.

Yes, many times! And there's nothing wrong with it, provided there's some of the other available -- for people who hold up thatm musical milieu as sanity by comparison.

To return to your professional history, when did you start playing in public?

I left school at 16. I could play enough piano to earn my living. I wasn't a high-standard professional, but I got a job in a neighborhood pub, for the princely sum of about $5 a week, and a box on the piano for gratuities. I did that for a year. Then I joined a semiprofessional band, and then an all-blind band that did Ellington and Lunceford arrangements. . . . And the drummer of that band introduced me to [critic] Leonard Feather. He got BBC and recording dates for me. Then I started winning trade-magazine polls in England. I became more jazz-oriented all the time.

Was your immigration to the United States a professional move?

Yes, very much so. The second world war was over, and I felt I'd gone about as far as I could. I was married, and we came to the US for a three-month vacation. Then we went back, sold our home, and returned. I had been encouraged by fine American jazz musicians I'd met during the war -- Fats Waller , Glenn Miller, and others -- and I thought I'd come here and just lay everybody out! But people weren't really interested in my ability to play like Tatum and Waller, even though they often expressed it that way. They really wanted to hear what I had that was mine.m

So when the quintet came out, I established my identity. And I established what I was going to offer at the end of the frantic, frenetic bebop period. People wanted what I did, so I was able to sell it to them. We abided by the strictest tradition in playing the melody. But what happened after the first statement was anybody's guess, until we finally returned to the first chorus.

Have your own tastes in jazz -- as a listener -- evolved and changed over the years?

Oh, yes. I've loved Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller. And I haven't disposed of these people; I still enjoy listening to them. But I've added to them -- Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. I love Bach, Delius, Ravel, Debussy. And I've added to them Bartok, Hindemith. and I still love Mozart.

But people who startm with the most contemporary are starting at an altitude of several thousand feet -- they don't really know what it's like to put their feet on the ground for a bit! You don't start building your house on the second floor. Of course, this is a dangerous area for me: I've passed my 60th birthday , and people will say I'm just an old fuddy-duddy. But that's not the issue. The issue is: Let's lay the ground rules -- in music and in life -- so we'll know what we're disobeying, and why.

Overall, is jazz in a healthy state today?

Yes. There's a healthy integration between jazz, folk, rock. I like that merging of categories, as long as it's not too blurred. I also like the idea of mixing jazz and classical music, and crossing those barriers. I like an ever-increasing search for something different, as long as one is constantly conscious of the necessity to obtain permission for the search -- by maintaining the musically traditional, and thus some degree of sanity. . . .

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