Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend: Shearing ensemble honors a master


LEE -- The only authorized tribute band to the celebrated pianist, composer and ensemble leader George Shearing is the cornerstone of this Third Annual Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend.

The Sounds of Shearing, saluting the more than three-decade success of the George Shearing Quintet, during the 1950s through the ‘80s, and formed with the express approval and encouragement of Shearing prior to his death in 2011, at 91, will perform in concert at 8 tonight on the festival's main stage, the Lee Meeting House in the First Congregational Church.

The Gateway Weekend, which began Thursday with Sonny and Perlee's quartet delivering their popular blend of jazz, bossa nova, standards and cabaret fare to a Spectrum Playhouse audience, continues at 8 p.m. Saturday, with the New Black Eagle Jazz Band bringing their soulful New Orleans music to Lee for the first time, also at the Church.

An outdoor art exhibition and a Sunday jazz brunch with a performance by the Release the Penguins Jazz Quartet complete the agenda.

Shearing's life was one of music's great fables. Born sightless in London on Aug. 13, 1919, the youngest in a working-class family of nine children -- his father delivered coal, and his mother cleaned trains in the evenings -- Shearing, at age three, was attracted to the piano, beginning study at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind. Offered scholarships, he demurred, opting for the more practical 25 bob ($5), the yield for a week's work in a pub.

His career in the UK bloomed through a new friendship with Leonard Feather, the jazz critic and author, and after Shearing's emigration to this country in 1947, his harmonically complex mix of swing, bop and modern classical influences -- Satie, Delius and Debussy -- gathered many admirers, including eventually, habitués of symphony orchestra concerts.

What became known as "Shearing's voicing" actually was invented by Milt Buckner, the jazz organist, but Shearing savored it faithfully.

Shearing has been credited with composing more than 300 pieces -- at the top, "Lullaby of Birdland," also the title of his autobiography.

The Tribute to the Shearing Quintet originally was intended to be a one-time gig, explained Charlie Shoemake, the vibraphonist and group leader. But that opening night, "Jazz at the Hamlet" in Cambria, Calif., proved to be just one of many opening nights. A booking agent got in touch with Shoemake, and the group has been performing around the West Coast.

Shoemake, Ron Anthony on guitar and Colin Bailey, drums, were members of the George Shearing Quintet, and Joe Bagg has inherited that magic Shearing keyboard, and Luther Hughes is the bassist.

It should be little surprise that the Tribute band is making its eastern seaboard debut in Lee, suggested Richard Vinette, who is coordinating the weekend festival, as secretary clerk of Berkshire Jazz, Inc., and a board member of Berkshire Gateway Preservation, Inc. the group that is developing the Congregational Church into a performance space.

"Shearing and his wife, the singer Ellie Geffert, spent summers in Lee for about 10 years, at Dee Dee Frazier's Brookside Farm," he explained, adding, "When Shearing was not performing at Tanglewood they shared a box in Ozawa Hall."

Although Geffert was not able to clear time to introduce the band on Saturday, she made a videotape at her home in New York, with assistance from Fraser and Jeremy Clowe, a local videographer. A longer version offering an interview with Geffert was shown at the Lee library.

Shoemake, contacted at his home in Cambria disclosed that drummer Colin Bailey, who is recovering from surgery, will not make the trip. He will be replaced on the stand by Bill Goodwin, another former member of Shearing's aggregation.

Explaining the evening's format, Shoemake said "We usually play Geirge's hits -- ‘East of the Sun,' ‘September in the Rain,' ‘I'll Remember April' -- and we do some of George's Latin things, and, of course, ‘Lullaby of Birdland.'

"In the second set, we do a few more of those, and we like to feature members of the Quintet who are famous people here on the coast," he said, adding that his wife, Sandi Shoemake, a former big-band singer for Nelson Riddle, performs a couple of tunes.

Charlie Shoemake was not with Shearing when he received his two most important late-in-life recognitions -- his appointment as O.B.E. in 1996, and knighting by the Queen in 2007. But the members of the Shearing bands appear to share unanimity in their love and respect for their leader contending that he never lost sight of his humble background.


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