I remember as a teenager reading this account of a George Shearing concert , in Jack Kerouac’s classic “On the Road:”
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. This madness would lead nowhere.”
I didn’t know who Shearing was at the time, but I do remember thinking that was quite a compelling piece of writing. Fifty years after Kerouac’s night of bliss, I was at the Blue Note in Manhattan to see Toots Thielemans, a gifted jazz harmonica player. Toots had a great combo with him, including a young guy at the piano who was really pounding it out. Then Toots paused, gestured toward the audience and out came an ancient, tottering George Shearing. He was led to the piano and he sat down and began to play.
I was maybe 10 feet away, and from the very first note you understood that however good the young pianoman may have seemed, Shearing totally outclassed him. It was the most impressive example of genius making itself known that I have ever seen. It vindicated Kerouac, who has a well-deserved reputation for being grandiose about such things.
Here’s a taste: