Shearing Departs

… And suddenly Neal stared into the darkness of a corner beyond the bandstand and said “Jack, God has arrived.” I looked. Who was sitting in the corner with Denzel Best and John Levy and Chuck Wayne the onetime cowboy guitarist? GEORGE SHEARING. And as ever he leaned his blind head on his pale hand and all ears opened like the ears of an elephant listened to the American sounds and mastered them for his own English summer’s night-use. Then they urged him to get up and play. He did. He blew innumerable choruses replete with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his dark corner, old God Shearing, and the boys said “There ain’t nothing left after that.” But the slender leader frowned. “Let’s blow anyway.” Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little further—it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and which would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned—-and Neal sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go. At nine o’clock in the morning everybody, musicians, girls in slacks, bartenders, and the one little skinny unhappy trombonist staggered out of the club into the great roar of Chicago day to sleep until the wild bop night again. Neal and I shuddered in the raggedness.

British jazz hero George Shearing died on Valentine’s Day at the age of 91. The blind piano player was one of two famous jazz musicians immortalized by direct appearance in Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road (the other was vocalist Slim Gaillard).

Just for the fun of it, I took the quote above from the recently published original scroll version of On The Road rather than the canonical edited text. The main difference is the lack of paragraph breaks; most of the original words made it verbatim into the published book.

The passage above is Shearing’s second appearance in the novel. About a hundred pages earlier, the intrepid roadsters catch him headlining at Birdland in New York City. Here, the piano player sits in on another band’s gig, abandoning the entire nightclub to a state of afterglow that lasts till morning. Not a bad way to leave a room.

(Here’s another tribute that just rolled in from the Maverick Philosopher, another Kerouac fan.)

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