Talks to Alan Stevens in 1979
I found the sound
The Shearing Spell
Talks to Alan Stevens
Good times and good time
Ronnie Ball, Derek Smith, Dill Jones, Marian McPartland, Eddie Thompson, Ralph Sharon, Alec Templeton, Joe Saye and yourself. . . some of the Britishborn pianists who emigrated to the USA and. made the grade there. George, why do you think that, of all the British instrumentalists who've gone over to the States, by far the greater number have been pianists?
I could be quite facetious and say: "Because there are better pianos over there! " But that wouldn't be true; there are some wonderful instruments over here. I really don't know an answer to your question, though I suppose one reason is that, of any instrument that can play alone, the piano, of course, is the most feasible. So, if it came down to doing a solo performance, the pianist could do it alone, whereas it would be very difficult for, say, a trumpet player to stand out there just on his own. You first went across the Atlantic in 1946, but you stayed for only three months. Why was that such a short stay? I'd really only gone on a vacation, and to sort of get the lie of the land. It was more or less an exploratory trip.
Of course, you went back in December, 1947, and you've been there ever since. I seem to remember reading somewhere that, at that time, in New York you were given great encouragement by clarinettist Tony Scott when you were playing at the Three Deuces. Did anyone else encourage you?
Many peopleLeonard Feather, in particular Then there were Charlie Shavers, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, with whom I sat in several times. As a matter of fact, I had the feeling that Bird was giving me the onceover, in terms of testing me; I suppose I was giving the impression of being a cocky youngster.
"What d'you want to play, Bird?" I said. He said: "Oh, how's about 'All The Things You Are' in B." Now, you know, it's a rather difficult key, but I was equipped to do it.
Haven't you got a reputation for wanting to play in difficult keys?
Yes, yes! That's what I say, I was equipped to do it; so everything worked out fine. I really love those awkward keys.
In 1949, when the quintet was formed, did you envisage that it would become such an enormous success?
Oh, absolutely not! You see before that there was the Buddy De Franco/ George Shearing Quartet with John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums, and Buddy was negotiating with Capitol whilst I was negotiating with MGM. It's ridiculous for two careers to try to exist side by side, when two different recording companies are involved. As a dual career, we broke up, but we went on to our separate successful careers. It was then that Leonard Feather suggested bringing in Marjorie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar, whilst retaining the rather soft and subdued rhythm section of John and Denzil.
That's how we started, but I suppose you're well aware that the quintet broke up some fifteen months ago? Yes, of course. But, even today, thirty years after its formation, the quintet is still talked about, and a lot of people will be disappointed that you don't have a quintet with you on this tour.
I'm sure they will be, but, hopefully, if they will keep an open mind and an open ear, they will find that I'm enjoying my musical ventures much more without the quintet than I did with it, because I have much more freedom to improvise. My concerts are much more spontaneous; often I don't decide what to play until I actually get to the piano.
When you first became interested in jazz, were there any pianists, or for that matter any other instrumentalists, who influenced you?
Certainly! Art Tatum Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller and Bob Zurke. Then, later on, there were Erroll Garner and Bill Evans.
And it's gone full circle, because there are a lot of pianists now who've been influenced by you. I'd say that with the quintet you developed tremendous musical flair. For instance, I can recall the many key changes in "I Hear Music", and then there was that little fugue that introduced and concluded "Pick Yourself Up". Did those ideas sort of come naturally to you, or did you have to consciously work at them?
No, I very rarely consciously work at anything, except a classical concerto. Those ideas just spontaneously came into my head, and that's the premise on which I used to choose the tunes to play with the quintet. You still have this flair. For instance, on the album "Light, Airy and Swinging" your version of a contemporary tune called "If" nods very much in the direction of Mozart. Now that idea flashed into my mind on the way from my hotel to the studio, and we recorded it twenty minutes later.
It's not surprising that you should borrow from Mozart, because you were classically trained, weren't you?
I was. I still play the classics. I play with many symphony orchestras throughout the United States, playing Mozart and Bach during the first half of a concert, and then jazz in the second. And there are full houses almost every time.
But who do they appeal to, mainly?
Well, my idea in doing them, Alan, is that we draw from the jazz audience, who think that classical music is just a lot of scales, and we draw from the classical audience, who perhaps feel that jazz is nothing more than a lot of noise. I try to turn the heads around of both sides.
Presumably, you don't have a preference for either?
Not really. When I'm home, I'll listen to Mozart, Bach, Delius, Ravel, Tatum and Bill Evans. No preferences. Good music is good music, whatever its original source.
I don't want to appear to be derogatory, but, in many ways, you are regarded as a pianist of what might be termed the old school By that I mean you have due regard for key signatures, bar lines and chord progressions, and you keep the melody well to the fore. Now, all those qualities seem to me to have been thrown out of the window by many of the younger pianists of today. Their cry is that they must have selfexpression. To me, it smacks more of selfindulgence. Have you any opinions of this avant garde scene?
I don't like it as a general rule, I but I do like what Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock are doing. I've never been quite up on what, for instance, Cecil Taylor is doing. I'm not saying it's good, bad or indifferent. I'm merely saying I don't like it, primarily because I don't understand what they're driving at.
What does the future hold for George Shearing?
Well, I want to continue travelling and playing while I still have my health and strength. Obviously, I'll cut down on those activities as my health dictates. I think that to retire with nothing in mind is to hasten death. I have an idea which I haven't yet exploredhopefully, I'll have a small chamber group playing specially written Mozartoriented music that can stand a soft, subdued rhythm section. That would be just an experiment; I wouldn't take it out on the road.
I hope, George, that your health dictates that you will be with us for a very long time, and that we may see you more often in this country.
I do, too. And may I say it's been a great pleasure talking to you.
Copyright © 1979, Alan Stevens. All Rights Reserved.