This Guy Died This Year: George Shearing, Music's Original Hipster Taste

Jack Kerouac was into George Shearing before it was cool to be into George Shearing (or into Jack Kerouac, for that matter). Kerouac wrote a great deal about the near-orgasmic experience of listening to jazz, and one of his more notable passages on the subject appears in On the Road. It's drawn from having seen Shearing play the piano live in New York in the late 1940s:

Dean and I went to see Shearing at Birdland in the midst of the long, mad weekend. The place was deserted, we were the first customers, ten o'clock. Shearing came out, blind, led by the hand to his keyboard. He was a distinguished-looking Englishman with a stiff white collar, slightly beefy, blond, with a delicate English-summer's-night air about him that came out in the first rippling sweet number he played as the bass-player leaned to him reverently and thrummed the beat. The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that's all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you'd think the man wouldn't have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to "Go!" Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. "There he is! That's him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!" And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean's gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn't see. "That's right!" Dean said. "Yes!" Shearing smiled, he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. "God's empty chair," he said. On the piano a horn sat; its golden shadow made a strange reflection along the desert caravan painted on the wall behind the drums. God was gone; it was the silence of his departure. It was a rainy night. It was the myth of the rainy night. Dean was popeyed with awe.


Before he became cool and commercial. Jack Kerouac on Shearing sounds a little like Pitchfork on The Killers. Still, he had a point. That "cool and commercial" Shearing, the one who wrote "Lullaby of Birdland" and who helped make famous such soft melodies as "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," is more or less the only Shearing anyone remembered when he died on Feb. 14. The New York Times described "the Shearing sound" as one that "eschewed bebop's ferocious energy." The Guardian, in his native Britain, credited him with developing "a musical style that sounded modern and new, but was easy to enjoy." And the Los Angeles Times, cutting right to the chase, called it "a formula that would establish his jazz identity." Yet the Shearing of his obituaries bears no resemblance to the "Old God Shearing" of On the Road, the man whose rollicking sound so captivated Kerouac's Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity during their "long, mad weekend." Why?

Shearing owed a great debt to bebop and its complex, freewheeling stylings. He devoured Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson records in his teenage years, and he was well-established as a star in London in the early '40s before coming to New York in 1947, at which time he "quickly absorbed bebop into his bloodstream," in the words of the critic Richard S. Ginell. Commercial success came with his own quintet, with whom Shearing played for many years afterward, albeit with that softer, gentler touch for which he is now more widely known.

When I learned of Shearing's death earlier this year, I thought about that vivid scene from On the Road, about what a thrill it must have been to have seen a guy at the height of his powers in an intimate setting like the old Birdland. I was curious to see if any of the obituaries mentioned it, or at least conveyed some sense of his old, wild energy. But Old God wasn't there. The squares still didn't get it, man.