God’s empty chair
George Shearing, the great jazz pianist, has just passed away, aged 91. He was born British and born blind; from 1947 he was based in the United States. His New Zealand connection came through Julian Lee, the blind multi-instrumentalist born in Dunedin and now living in Australia. In the 1960s Shearing – along with another music legend – was instrumental in getting work for Lee in Los Angeles. Lee took quite a bit of persuading, he recalled in a 2000 interview with Radio New Zealand’s Haydn Sherley:
In 1960 George Shearing came over [to Sydney], and he worked at Channel 7 where I was staff arranger. And he being in a similar position – he doesn’t look where he’s going either – we got talking, went to lunch, and I played him a few of my arrangements. He said, ‘You gotta come over to the States man, you’re wasting your time.’ I said, ‘Not on your life, thanks, I’m doing fine.’ So I didn’t do anything about it.
But in ’62 Sinatra came over and I went to a cocktail party because I was doing some writing for what was then Coronet Records, the Australian record company, which coy, later on became CBS. Frank said, I’d like to have a chat with you, so if you could come back stage this evening before the show, while the support act is we can spend the first hour having a talk.
So I did. I had to borrow Alan Nash’s trumpet – he was the lead trumpet player – so I could get into the place, into the back door, through the security. And Frank says, ‘I’ve heard some of your things, I want you to come over to the States, in fact you have to do that because you’re a talent we want to foster.’ So I said, Well, what senor commands I must do – so I did, in ’63, I went over.
Once in the US, Shearing sponsored Lee with the immigration department, and got him to write arrangements and Braille his parts. “Nobody else could do that, and it was easily proved.” Lee arranged tracks on the 1960s Shearing albums Deep Velvet and Here & Now! Shearing also helped Lee into production work. “And Frank opened the door to all sorts of people for me,” said Lee. “I didn’t do any actual work for him but I met a lot of very influential people, like Johnny Burke and oh Nelson Riddle.”
“Frightening,” he replied. “I can remember the first session I did for George. I thought I’d go down early to do this session, because I’m a new chum. And when I got down to the studio at 9.15am for a 10.00am recording session, the whole band was there warming up. What is this? … Then, we did the first 3 hours, and they all applauded me. Then they left, before I could say goodbye: the string players had gone to another!”