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Lullaby of Birdland (1952)

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Origin and Chart Information
“When I heard Erroll Garner’s recording of the tune, it quickly became my very favorite recording. I wonder why I didn’t write it that way...?”

- George Shearing

AKALullabye of Birdland
Rank 153
Music George Shearing
Lyrics George Weiss

Birdland was a famous jazz club in New York City located at 1678 Broadway at 44th Street. It had previously been the Clique Club where pianist George Shearing, composer of “Lullaby of Birdland,” first played in 1949 with clarinetist Buddy De Franco. Later that year owner Morris Levy renamed the club Birdland in honor of Charlie “Bird” Parker.

In his autobiography, Lullaby Of Birdland: The Autobiography Of George Shearing, Shearing says that there was nothing special about the small club which seated a maximum of 175 when packed. But it became famous because of the live broadcasts which originated there. In 1952 Levy decided to have station WJZ in New York broadcast a disc jockey program from there, and he asked Shearing to record a theme song for the show. But Shearing didn’t like the song that Levy gave him, so he offered to write one especially for the show. Levy finally agreed with the stipulation that he be given publishing rights while Shearing retain composer rights.

For weeks Shearing tried to come up with something but to no avail. Suddenly one night in the middle of dinner he jumped up, went to the piano and wrote the whole thing in about ten minutes. The pianist explains, “Actually quite a lot of my compositions have come this way--very slow going for a week or so, and the finished piece comes together very rapidly, but as I say to those who criticize this method of working, it’s not that I dash something off in ten minutes, it’s ten minutes plus umpteen years in the business.” Shearing recorded his instrumental for the radio show and ultimately adopted it as the theme song for his quintet.


More on George Weiss at JazzBiographies.com

More on George Shearing at JazzBiographies.com

Somewhat later George David Weiss added lyrics to the tune, and Sarah Vaughan recorded it in December, 1954, for Mercury with trumpeter Clifford Brown. It was one of her biggest hits and became a standard in her repertoire. In 1956 a Parisian vocal group called the Blue Stars took the song to the charts where it rose to #16. In 1962 Bill Haley and His Comets recorded a version of the tune which they called, “Lullaby of Birdland Twist.”


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Weiss’ romantic lyrics have a clipped, rhythmic feel and fit snuggly into the melody:

Have you ever heard two turtle doves
Bill and coo when they love?
That’s the kind of magic music we get from our lips
When we kiss

The lyrics are frequently credited to B. Y. Forster, and in his autobiography Shearing explains the mystery. It was against the rules at the time for an ASCAP writer to write with a BMI composer, so Weiss had to assume an alias. Ever the punster, Shearing says, “I guess you could say that it [‘Lullaby of Birdland’] was a half ASCAP tune.”

Shearing recorded the song several times in different configurations. He gave it a Latin feel with vocalist Ernestine Anderson, played it with Tito Puente’s band, and Dick Hyman arranged it for Shearing’s BBC Big Band tour. Shearing recorded it with a new quintet in 1994 and again with different personal in the quintet that he took into the new Birdland in 2000. He has performed it as a duet with two different bassists, Brian Torff and Neil Swainson. In 1982 he and vocalist Mel Torme recorded it in a live performance called An Evening with George Shearing & Mel Torme for which Torme won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male. Torme repeated his award the following year, again for a duo performance with Shearing called Top Drawer. While the singer was honored by the awards he was vocal about his chagrin that Shearing was overlooked on both occasions for an effort that was clearly a total collaboration.


More on Erroll Garner at JazzBiographies.com

Shearing makes no bones about his preferred rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland.” “When I heard Erroll Garner’s recording of the tune, it quickly became my very favorite recording. I wonder why I didn’t write it that way--by which I mean I had a fairly brisk tempo in mind, whereas Erroll just took it very gently, he kind of lagged it along and scraped his way through it, so much so that you can almost hear the smile on his face as he’s playing.”

Without intending to praise his own composition, Shearing’s further comments on Garner’s rendition of the song shed light on the interest that a great song holds for other musicians over the decades. “After hearing how he [Garner] tackled ‘Lullaby of Birdland,’ I came to realize that the composer is not always right about his or her own music. Because when someone else comes up with another idea, they can enrich a piece by hearing something different in it.”

More information on this tune...

George Shearing, Alyn Shipton
Lullaby Of Birdland: The Autobiography Of George Shearing
Continuum International Publishing Group

(The composer himself tells the anecdotal history of “Lullaby of Birdland” in his amusing autobiography.)

- Sandra Burlingame

Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Erroll Garner
The Essence of Erroll Garner
Original Recording 1950

Pianist Garner offers up a relaxed, swinging trio performance full of rich block chords and playful improvisation. It’s no wonder why George Shearing, the song’s composer, was so fond of Garner’s interpretation.

Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown
Sarah Vaughan W/ Clifford Brown
Polygram Records

This remarkable recording by Vaughan established “Lullaby of Birdland” as an important vocal standard. With a mid-sized ensemble featuring Clifford Brown on trumpet and the understated drumming of Roy Haynes, Vaughan adds to the her great interpretation of the melody with some of her best scatting on record as she “trades fours” with the horns.

Mel Torme
The Bethlehem Years
Shout Factory
Original recording 1956

This landmark performance demonstrates Torme’s jazz pedigree as well as any he ever recorded. After singing the melody accompanied only by Red Mitchell’s bass and Mel Lewis’ drums, he comes up with a remarkable scat solo, as Marty Paich’s arrangement gets more elaborate.

Duke Ellington
Piano in the Background
Original recording 1960

The first several choruses of this performance feature Ellington’s swinging but harmonically edgy and adventurous piano in a trio setting. Just when we get used to that, the full band enters and we are treated to a rich, clever arrangement for his Orchestra.

Lionel Hampton & Dexter Gordon
Total Swing, Vol. 4
Starburst [Tko Mag]
Original recording 1977

Saxophonist Gordon and vibraphonist Hampton team up on this hard-swinging and spirited performance, also featuring great solos by guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist Hank Jones.


- Noah Baerman

Diane Reeves
The Calling
2003 Blue Note 27694
Original recording 2001
Reeves won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal for this salute to fellow vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Backed by an outstanding orchestra, she delivers the song at its boldest and brassiest, swinging hard and phrasing perfectly.
Cal Tjader
Black Orchid
1993 Fantasy Records 24730
Original recording 1956
Vibraphonist Tjader does what he does best, translating the song into a Latin shuffle, cool and breezy and so much fun.
Jaki Byard
1996 Original Jazz Classics 1879
Original recording 1962
This is a simple yet elegant piano trio reading of the song. At the keys Byard delivers in honest reverence, and the rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Pete LaRoca follow suit.
George Shearing
Best of George Shearing: His Original Capitol Recordings
Curb Records

Shearing recorded his composition several times. In this collection it is with his quintet’s distinctive “Shearing sound.” In his live recording Back to Birdland he offers a solo piano version.

- Ben Maycock

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