Thursday, February 17, 2011

For a Song: Lullaby of Birdland

George Shearing: Lullaby of Birdland


"I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one." - George Shearing, introducing Lullaby of Birdland

George Shearing died earlier this week. He was 91. Shearing was a jazz pianist and songwriter. His career, starting with the obscurity and oblivion he talks about above, began in 1937, but did not take off until 1949. The years immediately following the end of World War II were an interesting time in jazz. Suddenly, the big bands were no longer economically feasible. Musicians like Benny Goodman adapted by shrinking their bands down to small combos, and some exciting music resulted. But swing would never again enjoy its prewar levels of popularity. Newer artists also had small groups, but they took the music in new directions, first with bebop, and then with cool jazz. Increasingly, jazz was changing from mass entertainment to more of a niche product. George Shearing was not known for his work before the war, so all options were open to him. Swing was his model, but his quintet was unusual because there were no horns. The Shearing quintet had drums, bass, and piano, of course. But a vibraphone was used to double the parts that Shearing played on the piano in his right hand, while an electric guitar doubled the left hand. This gave Shearing’s music the big sound he wanted, but with a small group. I know of no other band that did this, either then or since. Shearing debuted this sound in 1949, and had a hit album with it right away. So he must have had imitators, but I’ve never heard or heard of them. This new sound launched a career that would last more than fifty years. Shearing would go on to work with some of the great jazz singers, notably Mel Torme. But Lullaby of Birdland is still his best known composition, and a fine example of the sound that made him famous.