I’m stealing most of this from a post I wrote in November of 2005, but as I’ve noted recently, you can’t have a blog for a decade without repeating yourself on occasion.
Once, back in the 70s, Robin and I went to the Concord Summer Jazz Festival when George Shearing was performing. Shearing, a pianist who was born blind, was known at that time more as a jazz popularizer than as an innovator, but there was also something else, for Shearing was also featured in a terrific scene from On the Road:
And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of his piano in great rich showers; you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to “Go”. Dean was sweating, the sweat poured down his collar. “There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. “That’s right!” Dean said. “Yes!” Shearing smiled; he rocked.
(Reading this now, I’m wondering why I stopped the quotation there, for Kerouac wasn’t done. “Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God's empty chair,’ he said.”)
When we saw Shearing, it was a couple of decades past the time when he was God, but it's not everyday you meet a deity, even one in the past tense. And meet him I did, for Robin and I had arrived early, and as we sat in our seats, I kept thinking the man sitting behind us looked familiar. I couldn't place his face, until I realized it was George Shearing himself, without his sunglasses, which is what threw me off.
You know I was thrilled. And somehow I managed to get up the nerve to go over and introduce myself. So I rose from my chair and walked over to Old God Shearing. "Mr. Shearing?" I asked, sticking out my hand in greeting. "Yes," he answered, and there it was, me talking to God. I didn't have much to say, but I'd seen him on a television program a week or so before, and I asked him about that, and what he would be playing in the night's concert, just general stuff. I was kinda proud of myself, to be honest, that for once I wasn't freaking out in the presence of a celebrity. In fact, I came to realize as we talked, it seemed that George was the one freaking out. Because as we continued to talk, I couldn't help but notice that Old God was waving his right hand in the air in a spastic fashion, and while I had my memories of On the Road, this seemed kinda weird, if you want to know the truth, and it was all I could do to keep the conversation going while thinking "gee, is this guy all right? He's freaking out!"
I'm not sure what I realized first ... my two thoughts were closely connected, perhaps I thought them simultaneously. For one thing, I realized that I still had my own hand out in the "let's shake" greeting which had started our encounter. And then I remembered what the absence of sunglasses must have led me to forget: Old God Shearing was blind, and the whole time I was jabbering away about teevee shows and setlists, the kind pianist had his own hand out, searching for mine so he could greet one of his fans.
And I was standing there, my figurative hand up my ass while my actual hand remained firmly in place, waiting for God to find it.
I suppose there's a happy ending ... I finally grabbed Shearing's hand in mine, and we shook, and soon after I returned to my seat, and I joked with Robin about how I was never going to wash that hand again, because it had touched God.
Here is George Shearing and his Quintet … I’m guessing this is early 50s: