Carl Gorham: ‘Shear Brass: Celebrating Sir George Shearing’

The remarkable legacy of Sir George Shearing is being honoured in a series of concerts that go alongside the release of a joyous new album called Shear Brass: Celebrating Sir George Shearing (Ubuntu Music, release date 1 September 2023), organised by and featuring his great nephew Carl Gorham, the drummer on all 11 tracks. Interview by Martin Chilton:

Carl Gorham at drum kit in studio wearing headphones
Carl Gorham. Photo credit: Monika S Jakubowska

Londoner George Shearing was a genuine trailblazer. When he moved to America after World War Two, he became the first British jazz pianist to make an international impact. His compositions, including ‘Midnight Mood’, ‘Conception’ and ‘Lullaby of Birdland’, became revered standards.

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“It is hard to overstate what a huge move going to the United States was because there was no real precedent for it,” explains Gorham in an interview for London Jazz. “George Shearing was the first to relocate in that way and then the first to succeed on that scale as well. An incredibly brave move, and difficult at the time. My Grandad Bert, who worked at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, helped arrange things but even then, George wasn’t officially allowed to work the first time he went over, he could only sit-in by invitation. Then, when he was allowed to work, he initially struggled. He had to face down prejudice from night club owners about blind performers and the fact that he was a Brit who was coming to the US, the home of jazz.”

Shearing, born on 13 August 1919 in Battersea, won over the club owners and made his own seismic impact on the world of music. “His success was revolutionary, when it did come,” says Gorham. “The ‘Shearing sound’ went completely against the prevailing tide of Be Bop and was one of the very first examples of Cool Jazz. Then there were the Latin influenced years in the 1950s, when he was doing some things that others, such as Stan Getz, only did later. The collaborations with Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee also broke new ground in bringing together a mass audience and that kind of intimate jazz feeling. Overall, the significance of his breakthrough and his success in the US has definitely been undervalued, partly because the jazz world has always been suspicious of commercial success.”

Shearing remained proud of his London roots. It was where he met his first wife, Trixie Bayes, and where he formed lifelong friendships, including with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Gorham is a fan of their pre-war collaborations. “There’s something incredibly uplifting and at the same time very moving about their music together. Plus, they can really swing! I love their later versions of ‘It Don’t Mean a thing’ or ‘Too Marvellous for Words’. I remember going to George’s ‘This is Your Life’ TV show with the family in 1992 and one of my strongest memories of the day is Stéphane’s appearance and the warmth and mutual admiration that was apparent between them.”

Sir George Shearing playing piano for his relatives in Battersea, London. (family photo)
Sir George Shearing playing piano for his relatives in Battersea, London. (Family photo, courtesy of Ubuntu)

Shearing would talk about his love of the pianists Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Fats Waller to Gorham’s mother (Shearing envied Waller’s reach on the keyboard) and piano duties on Shear Brass are shared between James Pearson and Simon Wallace, both of whom, Gorham jokes, were already ‘Shearing aware’. “He’s just part of the canon. It is impossible to avoid his influence,” he adds. “What’s satisfying about the recordings we did for the album is that both pianists were able to combine that awareness of the Shearing legacy while retaining their own distinct styles.”

The album, produced by Derek Nash, also features Jason McDermid (trumpet and arrangements), Chris Storr (trumpet), Pete Long (clarinet, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone), Alistair White (trombone), Anthony Kerr (vibes), Alec Dankworth (bass), Arnie Somogyi (bass), Satin Singh (percussion), and Sarah Moule, Louise Marshall, Natalie Williams and Romy Sipek on vocals. It will be promoted in September gigs at the Auden Theatre, Holt, Norfolk (5th), The Stables, Milton Keynes (7th), with the album launch at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London (10th).

Gorham says he is “hugely proud” that his daughter Romy Sipek is the vocalist on a smashing version of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’. How much did she know much about her great, great uncle before the project? “She’s known about him since she was young,” adds Gorham. “She has always loved the song ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ and sang it as her audition piece for performing arts school. She also sang it with James Pearson on piano and Andy Davies on trumpet at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs early last year. It went down a storm then, so to get her to sing it on the album seemed a natural progression.”

As well as presenting other such fine Shearing works as ‘From Rags to Richards’, ‘The Fourth Deuce’ and ‘Children’s Waltz’, the live concerts promoting the album will also tell the story of Shearing’s astonishing life. “It is such a fascinating journey, a kind of fairytale even,” says Gorham. “He went from being a pub pianist in Lambeth to playing for three different American Presidents at the White House; from doing requests for tips in a saloon bar to writing a jazz standard recorded by Mariah Carey, Amy Winehouse and Ella Fitzgerald; from his dad delivering sacks of coal to Buckingham Palace via the servant’s entrance, to George going through the front door to receive his knighthood.”

Shearing’s life story seems ripe for a documentary and Gorham is working on this project. “I’ve wanted to do it for years – but I know from my ‘other’ career working in TV that it does take a long time and you have to be patient,” he says. “We have some great new footage that we’ve shot ourselves and we’re gathering more all the time. The aim is to make the documentary personal and impressionistic as well as factual; to bring in the family element; to make it a combination of ‘Who do you think you are?’ and a straighter bio that pays homage to George’s extraordinary rags-to-riches story. What’s exciting is that the three elements of the documentary, the album release and the live shows are all inter-linked and continue to give fresh impetus to each other.”

The arrangements by McDermid, a member of the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra since the 1990s, do so much more than just recreating the past: they bring a modernity to Shearing’s classic tunes that, says Gorham, make them “sound fresh and exciting”. The album is also sparked by a cast of stellar musicians, whose CV’s collectively involve serious sidemen chops, including work with Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hutcherson and Art Farmer. “They are wonderful musicians and great to collaborate with, because everyone seemed genuinely invested in the project and really keen to be involved,” says Gorham.

From left to right: Pete Long, Alistair White, Jason McDermid and James Pearson. (Photographer: Monika S Jakubowska)
L-R: Pete Long, Alistair White, Jason McDermid and James Pearson. Photo credit: Monika S Jakubowska

Given his uniquely personal perspective, I wonder what happy family memories he has of this statesman of music? “When I was very young, we’re talking the early ‘70s, the family went to see George in concert at the Victoria Palace Theatre outside Victoria Station. I think it was the first time I saw him live,” recalls Gorham. “We queued to see him beforehand in his dressing room. Behind us were John Dankworth and Cleo Laine (their son Alec is playing on our album and on our live dates too – a nice connection) and I remember George gently placing his hands on my mum’s face and recognising her and I remember thinking how amazing that was; then later I remember another special moment as he was led on stage, sat down at the piano, then raised his hands and without ‘checking’ in any way, brought them down in exactly the right place on the keys. Astonishing.”

Shear Brass is a timely reminder of one of Britain’s greatest musical exports. And, as Gorham rightly points out, “The name Shearing remains a great draw”.  

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Shear Brass: Celebrating Sir George Shearing is released on Ubuntu Music on Friday 1 September 2023.

The live Shear Brass concerts:
Tuesday 5 September – Auden Theatre, Holt, Norfolk
Thursday 7 September – The Stables, Milton Keynes
Sunday 10 September – Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London (album launch)

LINKS: Carl Gorham’s website 

Ubuntu Music

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