- Associated Press - Monday, February 14, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - George Shearing, the ebullient jazz pianist who wrote the standard “Lullaby of Birdland” and had a string of hits both with and without his quintet, has died. He was 91.

Shearing, blind since birth, died early Monday morning in Manhattan of congestive heart failure, his longtime manager Dale Sheets said.

Shearing had been a superstar of the jazz world since a couple of years after he arrived in the United States in 1947 from his native England, where he was already hugely popular. The George Shearing Quintet’s first big hit came in 1949 with a version of songwriter Harry Warren’s “September in the Rain.”

He remained active well into his 80s, releasing a CD called “Lullabies of Birdland” as well as a memoir, “Lullaby of Birdland,” in early 2004. In March of that year, though, he was hospitalized after suffering a fall at his home. It took him months to recover, and he largely retired from public appearances after that.

Sheets said that while Shearing ceased working, he never stop playing piano.

“He was getting better periodically and doing quite well up into about a month ago,” said Sheets.

In a 1987 Associated Press interview, Shearing said the ingredients for a great performance were “a good audience, a good piano, and a good physical feeling, which is not available to every soul, every day of everyone’s life.

“Your intent, then, is to speak to your audience in a language you know, to try to communicate in a way that will bring to them as good a feeling as you have yourself,” he said.

In 2007, Shearing was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to music. When the honor was announced, he said it was “amazing to receive an honor for something I absolutely love doing.”

Shearing’s bebop-influenced sound became identified with a quintet _ piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums _ which he put together in 1949. More recently, he played mostly solo or with only a bassist. He excelled in the “locked hands” technique, in which the pianist plays parallel melodies with the two hands, creating a distinct, full sound.

Guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli, who recorded 2002’s “The Rare Delight of You” with the George Shearing Quintet, said, “The Shearing sound is something that lives on ad infinitum.”

“There’s definitely a George Shearing style on the piano that really is hard to copy but we do it all the time,” he said. “It’s still something that’s employed by groups when they’re arranging things. They’ll say, `Well wait a minute. We’ll do something like Shearing in the middle.’”

Shearing was born Aug. 13, 1919, to a working-class family and grew up in the Battersea district of London.

A prodigy despite his inability to see printed music, he studied classical music for several years before deciding to “test the water on my own” instead of pursuing additional studies at a university. Shearing began his career at a London pub when he was 16.

During World War II, the young pianist teamed with Grappelli, the French jazz violinist, who spent the war years in London. Grappelli recalled to writer Leonard Feather in 1976 that he and Shearing would “play during air raids.”

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