If a man beats his wife at bridge in the morning he has a good chance of controlling her all day.” Jazz pianist George Shearing delivers this gloating maxim to a third party but in a voice loud enough to be heard by his wife, Ellie. Feeling her suddenly lean toward him, Shearing, who has been blind since birth, places his hands on Ellie’s forehead. “Ahh,” he coos, fingering the stern wrinkles in her brow, “you’re beautiful when you’re angry.”
That sends Ellie into one of her booming mezzo-soprano laughs. The Shearings dote on blindness jokes; as they might say, and in fact often do, they see eye to eye on that kind of humor. The two of them agree on more than that—which is fortunate since they are all but inseparable, both by choice and because of George’s handicap. The 60-year-old British-born musician tours extensively these days, with Ellie providing both physical and moral support. (When his guide dog, Leeland, died in 1975 after 12 years’ service, George did not replace him.)
Literally arm in arm, the Shearings rush from symphony dates in Baltimore to nightclubs in Chicago and Honolulu, back to the Cafe Carlyle in New York, then to Germany to cut an album. Whether Ellie, who is in her mid-40s, is de-linting her husband’s tuxedo before a White House performance (as she did in 1978) or holding back post-concert crowds, “she takes away the grueling edge,” George says.
After their 1975 marriage, the classically trained Ellie gave up her career as a backup singer and TV commercials actress. Now she is returning to it. A few nights before George’s current tour began she sang two sessions for Frank Sinatra’s in-progress three-LP set. “How can I fail to get jobs?” she asks. “I have George Shearing playing piano on my audition tape.” George confesses he fell for Ellie’s voice the night they met at a party in Los Angeles in 1971. “She’s got one of the most lilting, musical voices I’ve ever heard,” he sighs, tilting back his head. “I’ve only been able to teach her four bars of Autumn in New York, but I’d rather hear her sing lieder any day.” A woman’s physical attributes are not of overwhelming concern to George, as might be expected. “I wouldn’t want her to be as wide as she is tall,” he says, but is happy, he adds, not to have to worry about hair color or makeup. His friends point out, however, that George is so tactilely alert and full of innocent blind-man nudges that as an appraiser of the shapeliness of female passengers on elevators, for example, he has few peers.
His quick intelligence is just as appreciated. “I never met anyone past the age of 10,” Ellie says, “who was more interested in conversation as a learning process than George. He’s a terrific jokester, but he knows when to turn off the British banter and listen.”
Twenty years before they were formally introduced, the couple had a more distant encounter. Ellie, daughter of a Harvey, Ill. Lutheran minister and member of the church choir, was just another young jazz buff on a date at a Shearing performance in Chicago. “Unfortunately,” she recalls, “they sat us so close behind the piano that I spent the entire evening watching George’s feet on the pedals.”
George would not have been interested in adoring fans. “I was a happily married man at the time,” he says. He met his first wife, Trixie, in an air raid shelter in London during the Blitz. They had a daughter, Wendy, and were divorced amicably in 1973 after 32 years (“I gave it a good try,” George says, “but we just grew apart”).
His career has endured better. He emigrated to America in 1947 with a small reputation as a pop musician who had overcome congenital blindness and a grim upbringing as one of nine children born to a coal carrier in a London slum. Initially he drew attention in this country for his keyboard mimicry of great American jazz stylists like Tatum, Waller and Garner. But the novelty lagged. “Who needed an English Art Tatum?” Shearing asks today.
In 1949 jazz critic Leonard Feather suggested to George that he add a vibraphone and guitar to his trio of piano, bass and drums. With Shearing’s unique locked-hands style, the quintet created a velvety sound that never swung too far a field from popular mood music.
Beginning with their second record, September in the Rain, which sold a then astonishing 900,000 copies, the quintet became a showcase for George (and such future stars as vibraphonists Gary Burton and Cal Tjader and guitarist Joe Pass). It also helped introduce his 100 or so compositions—including the classic Lullaby of Birdland. “Yet almost from the beginning the quintet ran on automatic pilot,” George admits of its musical formula. Finally, in 1978, he disbanded the group, preferring the backing of 25-year-old bassist Brian Torff alone. George has lost count, but his current LP, 500 Miles High, on the German MPS label, is approximately his 100th.
Meanwhile, between the widely spaced meetings with George, Ellie Geffert taught vocal music in East Grand Rapids, then lived in New York City from 1960 to 1967 doing commercials and summer stock. She moved to Los Angeles, broke into the voiceover market and found time to teach music to ghetto children. A few years later Ellie and George began dating, got married (it was her first time)and lived in San Francisco. In 1978 they moved to a six-and-a-half-room apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “It’s a lot easier to be blind in New York now that they’ve enacted a clean-up-after-your-dog law,” George says gratefully. “Since much of my work is in the East, it’s also simpler to get home,” he adds. Domesticity is something the Shearings particularly enjoy. As Ellie explains, “We always go into a small funk before a tour.”
No wonder they hate to leave. With three pianos, hundreds of Braille-catalogued records and cassettes (more Bach than Basie or Benny Goodman) and a kitchen equipped with appliances like bun warmers, the Shearings live in unselfconscious comfort. Although George has little need for Ellie’s bound volumes of Gourmet magazine, he has been taking cooking lessons at the Jewish Guild for the Blind. As a result he can whip up minestrone and meat loaf in the Cuisinart as deftly as he runs up jazz arpeggios on the grand piano in the living room.
When people ask if he’s been blind all his life, George always replies, “Not yet.” He likes to point out “The only things I can’t do as a blind person are sight-read music, play tennis and drive a car.” But he is also aware, of course, that “there’s no such thing as a blind world. Blind people have to adapt to the sighted world, because the sighted world will never adapt to them.”
He likes showing off his bedroom closet full of neatly arranged shoes (he and Ellie shop for them together) as well as a cabinet full of Steuben glassware he carefully handles. His sense of the world around him is acute. “He can tell when I’ve dusted, just by feeling around,” Ellie says. She marvels at his skill, but jokes, “If he ever gives me a hard time, I warn him I’m going to rearrange the furniture.” George smiles.