February 16, 2011

Salmon for Lunch with Sir George and Joe

Our blog this time refers to a backstory about my brief encounter with Sir George Shearing, who passed away this last Monday at the age of 91, and the singer Joe Williams, who helped our archive get on its feet in its early days.

British-born George Shearing belongs in a select group of jazz musicians who qualify as household names. His personal style, especially in the late 1950’s, bridged the gap between easy listening and sophisticated jazz. In a typical 1957 household, George Shearing LP’s would share shelf space with instrumental offerings by Mantovani and Ray Conniff. Certainly the Shearing recordings were the hippest of this genre. His “Shearing Sound” led to many imitators. He had a way of blending his “locked hands” piano style with vibes and guitar, making the melody prominent while employing jazz harmonies and enough improvisation to satisfy jazz fans.

The early days of the archive included the enjoyable but daunting task of setting up interview sessions with Joe Williams as the interviewer. One of these situations arose with George Shearing. Considering that Joe lived in Las Vegas and George lived in New York City, and they were both VIP jazz musicians — busy recording and touring artists — putting them together in the same hotel room with cameras, lights and audio recorders was no small task. After numerous attempts, we finally brought them together in New York on March 8, 1996 at a hotel near Lincoln Center. Transportation arrangements were made to pick up Joe at his hotel, and Sir George at his apartment. George arrived, accompanied by his wife Ellie.

The moment finally arrived when we had them both seated in their respective chairs, lights and sound in place, ready to roll. At that point Joe suggested “perhaps we should eat lunch first.” So the phone was picked up and room service was ordered. It occurred to me at the time that we could just film the wait and film the lunch, perhaps somewhere between the salad and the salmon something would be said that we would be glad was caught on tape. Many poignant conversations occurred when musicians were simply talking off the cuff without a camera rolling. But I had come to know Joe Williams a bit, and a suggestion to roll the cameras while they were eating might have resulted in me being on the receiving end of one of Joe’s wide-eyed stares that tended to melt me in my tracks. It wouldn’t have been the first or the last time.

So lunch was ordered, eaten, cleared away, and the interview finally started actually as Joe finished his last bite. The session is only 26 minutes, but yielded this humorous anecdote from George about his first band experience in England:

GS: There was an all blind band in 1937. Fifteen musicians. Fifteen blind guys, taught to be musicians, from being chair caners, buskin makers...

JW: What?

GS: They caned chairs. They made buskins, and they were taught to play instruments and be musicians. And the scores were done in Braille. We had Lunceford’s “Stratosphere,” Benny Carter’s “Night Fall.”

JW: Did you have his suite too?

GS: Yeah, we had all the Braille charts. And I’m the only one that didn’t need it, and I’d pick it up by ear right away. The theme song for the band by the way was “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” And the only fully sighted man was a man named Claude Bampton, who was a kind of semi-professional band leader in England. He had this huge baton, you know “whit, whit, whit,” [sings] “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” One night, you know blind people always have to set up in a theater a little bit earlier than the sighted. It takes us a bit longer. And Claude said “okay fellas, you ready?” One guy said “no, just a minute, I lost my eye.” His glass eye had fallen out, rolled across the stage, and there was fifteen blind guys down on the floor...

JW: Oh, wait a minute, George...

GS: I kid you not, this is the God’s honest truth. Fifteen blind guys down on the floor looking for this eye.

JW: And you found it?

GS: They found it. And they didn’t massacre it at all, they found it. He put it in. “Whit, whit, whit” ... “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

The George Shearing Quintet set the template for other combos to follow. The great singers were especially fond of George Shearing. His impeccable accompaniment was employed by a long list, including Mel Torme, Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and, of course, Joe Williams. He made his mark as a composer as well as a performer, authoring a number of long lasting jazz standards, most notably “Lullaby of Birdland.”

The term “Sir” George is not used here lightly — George was knighted by the Queen of England in June of 2007. Hamilton College also awarded George an honorary doctorate degree in 1994.

I have a long list of memorable moments that came from this terrific gig as jazz archive director. I’ve been in rooms one-on-one with hundreds of jazz artists, and, on occasion, with pairs of the finest jazz musicians there are. In some occasions, the memories are connected with unforeseen occurrences. Lunch with George and Joe would qualify as one of them.