George Shearing, His Guide Dog and the Airplane Captain

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Charlie Haden has travelled millions of miles around the world on airplanes going back to the late 1950s, when he was bassist in Ornette Coleman’s group.  He’s told me some funny and ribald stories about those days, which are best kept private.  But he did tell me a funny story about George Shearing, the British pianist who was born blind and studied classical and later jazz piano in Braille at a music school for the blind.

I should mention that Shearing is one of the most understated, elegant pianists in jazz.  It’s no wonder he was always so popular.  He put his classical training to good use in his jazz improvisations.  Check out, for instance, how he quoted Poulenc’s lovely 3rd Mouvement Perpetuel in his version of “On The Street Where You Live” from the cd The Shearing Piano:   (Capitol).

By the 1960s Shearing was a world famous jazz pianist, with many cd’s out and fans all over the world (he was later to get a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth).  Once, when boarding a flight from Heathrow to New York City for an engagement there, he arrived at the airport and pre-boarded in first class with his guide dog.  The pilot and co-pilot in the cabin just in front of first class noticed their famous passenger and exclaimed their pleasure in having him aboard their flight.  The captain asked Shearing if he could do anything for him.  Shearing told the captain that he had to rush to the airport and that his guide dog could use a bit of a walk before the flight.  The captain happily obliged.

Imagine the sight of an airplane captain, with 4 stripes on his epaulets to indicate his rank, walking down the concourse with aviator’s glasses and a seeing-eye dog.  People waiting to board in economy were horrified and began canceling their flights.    Below find a youtube video of Shearing’s version of “It Never Entered My Mind” using a generous portion of Satie’s famous Gymnopedie #1.