Norfolk becomes a gateway to popular jazz

Holt based creative Carl Gorham has launched an exciting musical adventure to celebrate his great uncle and icon of jazz, Sir George Shearing

A jazz collective with an all-star cast, Shear Brass was founded by drummer Carl earlier this year to celebrate the works of one of Britain’s greatest musicians and composers. The group have released a debut album ‘Celebrating Sir George Shearing’, which they first performed in Holt’s Auden Theatre before embarking on a wider tour. 

Shear Brass brings a fresh and dynamic approach to Shearing’s wide repertoire. This ranges from early be-bop compositions and Latin-influenced arrangements to popular collaborations with famous names such as Nat King Cole. 

“I wanted to revisit his music and bring something fresh to it, not just recreate the Shearing sound,” explains Carl. “Sir George has been taken for granted over the years. I don’t feel he’s been fully appreciated in terms of the depth and range, the subtlety and beauty of his output. Shear Brass is all about putting that right and, because of my family connection, I feel an extra sense of mission.”

Already Shear Brass have enjoyed sell-out performances and glowing industry reviews, unsurprising given their talented line-up. Pianist James Pearson is Artistic Director at world-famous London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. Trumpeter Jason McDermid, who completed all the arrangements for the group, has played with the Jool’s Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra for over 25 years. Alistair White on trombone has played with superstars including Paul McCartney, Beyonce and Quincy Jones. And the list continues.  

Strengthening the family connection, founder Carl is also joined by daughter and vocalist Romy Sipek. “Romy is Shearing’s great great niece and sings on the track Lullaby of Birdland,” Carl says. “She was introduced to the song when she was very young and it has been with her throughout her life. She performed it at her school, Gresham’s, and used it as her audition piece for performing arts school. It’s so special to have her as part of Shearing Brass at the very dawn of her career while we celebrate Shearing’s legacy. I had to hold back the tears when she recorded it.”

Lullaby of Birdland is one of the most well known of Shearing’s compositions, with a melody that crosses into jazz pop. It has been recorded over 300 times by famous names including Amy Winehouse, Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald and even The Muppets. “Shearing was a breakthrough artist in that he was playing jazz but a popular form of it,” explains Carl. “He just wrote great punchy tunes.”

ABOVE: Sir George Shearing playing piano for his relatives in Battersea, London. © Carl Gorham family collection.

The tracks on the album cover an enjoyable range of styles. There are Latin tracks with fantastic percussion that sound like they belong on Strictly Come Dancing. The very soulful Children’s Waltz has a beautiful classical piano melody. Let There Be Love is a great pop song and faster tracks like Conception bring a big brass sound. “There is a real market out there for people to enjoy something like this just as they did in Shearing’s time,” Carl says. “A gateway into jazz for people who are not strong jazz fans.”

The concert experience with Shear Brass is full of nostalgia. Carl weaves family anecdotes of George Shearing’s extraordinary life in between songs from his scattered boyhood memories and clippings passed through the hands of proud relatives. 

“His is a most fascinating story,” Carl says. “A man born blind, the youngest of nine from a very working-class Battersea of the 1920s. There were no musicians in the family, but George began picking out tunes he heard on the radio on an old piano at just three years old. The family scraped together enough money for a piano teacher, Miss Dursley, but after just a month of lessons she told his parents that he was actually already better than she was.”

PICTURES: Carl Gorham is a passionate drummer and the great-nephew of the legendary jazz pianist and composer Sir George Shearing (above, left). Talented band members Jason McDermid, Carl Gorham, Alec Dankworth, Anthony Kerr, James Pearson, Pete Long, Alistair White (above, centre). Carl’s daughter Romy is part of the Shear Brass ensemble contributing powerful vocals to the band (above, right). Shear Brass perform at the iconic Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (below).

Shearing went on to a residential blind school where he continued to play the piano and got his first professional gig aged 16 in a pub in Lambeth. This was the beginning of an incredible trajectory to jazz fame. Shearing’s great breakthrough came at the end of the Second World War when, advised by visiting American jazz musicians, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean. First becoming Ella Fitzgerald’s intermission pianist, in the late 1940s he recorded September in the Rain which sold almost a million copies overnight. 

“One of the best photos the family have of George is him being knighted by HRH Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. Many decades earlier George’s father was a coalman delivering sacks to the servants’ entrance and here was George going through the front door to receive a knighthood. It was a brilliant summation of that journey,” says Carl. 

Carl has lived in and around Holt since 1998 when he and his late wife were drawn to the Norfolk coast. “My wife sadly died when my daughter was six years old and I got to know a lovely support network here in Norfolk,” he explains. “One thing that really strikes me is the strong community feel here and the old fashioned sense that people rally round.”

With a fantastic career in comedy, TV script writing and music, Carl is always flying around here and there, but he loves returning to the coast. “The walk from Weymouth to Sheringham across the clifftops is something I always crave when I’m away,” he says. “Norfolk offers the best of all worlds. Living in our rural county doesn’t mean you have to be out of touch, there is no need to leave to follow your dreams.”

The album Celebrating Sir George Shearing is available now on Amazon as a download, vinyl or CD. Shear Brass have new shows on the way for the new year that are not to be missed. Keep up to date by visiting 

PICTURES: © Monika S Jakubowska

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