Of All The People To Help Me See The Light
Blind musicians always seem to develop their other senses so highly. Just witnessing them performing is to see the marvel of human genius. A perfect example would be George Shearing. And beautiful fate was about to make us friends, onboard a luxury cruise ship, the Seabourn Pride.
I worked for so many months at a time on ships, that when I got off between contracts, I felt like a fish out of water. I had to get back, there was just nothing like it. Especially for the piano entertainer, because I could create my own thing, although it was a 7-night-a-week high energy job. It was like working in a self-contained mini New York City that had been blown far out into the warm sunny part of the sea, having my own cabin “apartment” and a 24-hour community party. I had to work from the first night onboard through the last night, on every contract. But what a setting: traveling to incredible places, posh accomodations, the daily scene changing outside the window and on the balcony of the luxury cabin, all the food and wine one could process, happy people and beaches, tourist attractions everywhere, endless ocean horizons with starlit nights, back-to-back.
When I saw George Shearing’s name on the list of headliners set to join the ship for a cruise, I had to look twice. George Shearing was a brilliant, ground-breaking jazz artist who perfected his own style that all the other greats adopted into their own approach. I mean everyone from Oscar Peterson to Herbie Hancock to Chick Corea, all of the notable piano giants were “disciples”. They all referred to him regularly. He put out more albums than almost all of his contemporaries. I even had a few of his music books too. In the cruising world, a headliner signs on for one week or more, doing a couple of big shows in the main lounge, and mingles with passengers both during the legendary meal sittings and on shore excursions.
He came aboard one morning, in St. Tropez, with his own bass player Neil Swainson, his favorite of all he'd played with. They would stay onboard for a week until we reached Santorini, Greece. Neil not only accompanied him playing like a virtuoso, but also really accompanied him, showing George where to walk, making sure he was safe, helping out. But Mr. Shearing was no fragile dependent. He insisted on memorizing walkways and routes and rooms so he could get along really well on his own. No cane. No wheelchair. I remember a passenger complimenting him on how he navigated the place and hearing him say “Well, if they really want to f- - - with me they’ll rearrange the furniture tonight!”
We met one afternoon when I was alone in the club, trying out a couple things on the newly-tuned piano. I was having a hard time after a bitter breakup that had left a gaping hole in my morale. He came in and introduced himself in a mild English accent, with heaps of mellow cordiality. I stood up and told him what a thrill this was for me. Right away his handshake was incredible. The hand almost had its own brain, partly gripping, partly feeling, transmitting back to him all kinds of info about who he was touching. He complimented me on my entertaining, saying that his first night onboard he had listened to part of a set from outside the club, as his cabin was on the same floor. I remember thanking him with great embarrassment. I'm not sure what made me admit to him how torn up I actuallyI was inside, and walking around broken, because I had just had such an unpleasant break-up, and she wanted to make me feel as bad as possible. To make matters worse, this had happened just before starting my contract onboard. I had been in Germany, and joined the ship in Nice France after a terrible couple of nights. I wondered if he'd had the same feeling of how hard it is to make people happy when you’re hurting. Well, I had just told the best possible person on Earth that I could ever have hoped to tell.
“I would never have known”, he said. "It isn't showing in your playing, and that's a very good thing at least. It seems to me, you have nothing stopping you from throwing it all over the side. Going…going, gone!” “I’d love to hear how you play after that!” I laughed like a kid. He was right. Maybe easier said than done, but hey wait a minute! George Shearing was giving me sage relationship therapy?? Blind or not, he looked through me like a window. I noticed something else so brilliant: he always had his head up, perfect posture, chin sticking up and out. His head being always up was courteous and regal but also a necessity. He heard better when he was upright, he listened better. And the effect on sighted people was magical. It looked so respectful. It was so classy! You knew he cared enough to hold his head high just to hear you clearly. He listened with a cool intensity. His listening was love. It knocked me out with its purity. That chin up posture may have come out of his being visually impaired, but to me it was a statement about his grand upbeat attitude. He wasn’t a man to forlornly face down at his shoes and lament.
He told me that after they settled in on his first night that he insisted on being “shown the ropes, everything once” with Neil’s help, hence hearing me in the club on the first night of the cruise. From the second night on, people came in to hear me, saying that George had told them to come up and see me. The sun itself could not have brightened and warmed the ship more completely. I was on Mars for the whole week.
I slipped in to hear one of his shows during one of my breaks, and witnessed something I‘ll never forget. Every face was frozen, and it was the quietest, most focused group of cruise passengers together in one room on the Mediterranean I have ever seen. He and Neil were swinging away like a shot of Scotch on a velvet couch. But when he played one particular song, time as I knew it just stopped. He took the standard “You’re The Top”, and said “Ok, everyone, brace yourself, I’m going to try to sing for you." And instead of singing the same old lyrics (“You're the top, you’re the Colusseum”), he sang “You’re the pits, you’re an airline dinner”, and more. Everyone was howling with delight. Including this late-night club pianist, yours truly, watching from the wings, and thinking, “You’re my god!”
The next afternoon I raved to him about his own show. He asked me if I would join him on the upper deck, as it was his favorite time of day, and would I get a couple of chairs? We sat in the sun and I told him that fit in perfectly because everyone on the deck had their best sunglasses on. Then he told me of a prank they played on him at the BBC for a photo shoot for one of his albums with his ever-present dark glasses. The photographer put a pair on his face, and adjusted them into position perfectly for the camera. Then snapped off a few pics. He knew George would give a feel around the glasses with his clairvoyant fingers. Only to discover that they were womens’ cat-eye shaped glasses! A good laugh was had by all, before they put his trademark sunglasses back on for the shoot.
The following morning came debarkation. All the passengers would leave, the ship would freshen up, and the next group would board later that afternoon for the next cruise. I woke up at my normal slightly late hour, took my coffee out on the balcony just in time to see the last few passengers walking down the gangway to waiting cabs, buses and shuttles, but too late to see George, who must have had left just a bit earlier. No doubt with head up, chin out, walking amongst the supposedly sighted earthlings, and taking it all in stride with Neil. I knew I had just spent a fraction of my life with a true spirit who had been blessing the earth with his sound since long before I was born. And I was richer for it. But as I turned to go back inside my cabin, a slight pang of melancholy came over me as I realized that the entire ship had somehow now become just a bit darker.