Erroll Garner

Jul 17th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Erroll Garner1921-1977  Erroll Garner was a self-taught pianist of astonishing originality and virtuosic technique who bridged key elements of the swing and bebop eras in a style all his own. He was the most popular pianist of his time, and was equally appreciated by other jazz musicians, jazz fans, and music lovers of all kinds.

Piano Prodigy

Garner was born in 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a trumpet player, his three sisters were musically inclined, and his older brother, Linton, became an accomplished pianist. At the age of three, Garner began playing the piano. He never learned to read music, but had an acute ear and an encyclopedic musical memory that served him well. He made his radio debut on the local station KDKA at the age of seven, performing with a group named the Kan-D-Kids. He had graduated to performing with local bands on riverboats on the Allegheny River by age 11, but continued in the shadow of his older brother until discovered by famed pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Garner moved to New York City in the early 1940s where he jammed with such bebop pioneers as Charlie Parker. Garner connected there with well-known bassist Slam Stewart. Garner’s first recording session for Savoy Records was with Stewart’s trio.  Later, Garner formed his own trio which recorded for the Mercury and Disc labels. A two-year sojourn in California brought Garner into the studio with Charlie Parker for Dial records, where he played on the famous Cool Blues session. He also recorded there under his own name with John Simmons on bass and Alvin Stoller on drums, which included his first big success, “Laura,” in 1945.

In 1950 at Detroit’s Music Hall, Garner gave his first concert, one of the first jazz artists to do so. His popular appeal was immediately apparent. While continuing to concertize, he began recording extensively for the Savoy, Rex, Signature, and Atlantic labels, leading up to his landmark composition and interpretation of the song “Misty,” recorded in 1954. Garner’s best-known tune, it was a hit for him, and with lyrics added by Johnny Burke, it went on to be a hit for Sarah Vaughn, Johnny Mathis, and others. “Misty” was also acknowledged by ASCAP as one of the 25 most performed songs of the 20th century, the only jazz song on that list; by NBC-TV’s Today Show, which used it as its theme music; and as the title song and theme music for Clint Eastwood’s film directing debut, Play Misty for Me, for which Garner rerecorded his tune. Also in 1954, Garner and his manager founded their own label, Octave Records.

A Concert by the Sea

But it was an accidental recording of a live performance in 1955 that would become Garner’s most enduring recorded legacy. That year, he, drummer Denzil Best, and bassist Eddie Calhoun performed in Carmel, California, captured by an audience member with a tape machine. The performance, released by Columbia Records as “Concert by the Sea,” became one of the best-selling and most influential jazz albums of all time. Its success led to a long affiliation between Garner and Columbia. Like most of his concerts and albums, it included a mixture of standards, show tunes, and ballads such as “Teach Me Tonight,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “April in Paris,” but Garner’s approach was anything but standard.

Key elements of Garner’s unique style, which he had perfected by the late 1940s, included a steady, four-beats-to-the-bar left hand, more like a rhythm guitar; free-flowing rubatto introductions that only gradually reveal the underlying song; and a right hand virtuosic improvisational technique that has been compared to “composing in real time,” featuring unusual chord voicings in arpeggios and runs, often in multiple octaves, that functioned with complete ambidextrous independence of his left hand’s rhythm. The overall impression has been called orchestral, and the intimate trio with which he worked almost his entire career was the appropriately intimate context for a sound that was itself so magnificent and grand. As if to emphasize its unmatched appeal, in 1956, Garner became the first and only nonclassical performer to be booked by the impresario Sol Hurok, which continued with international engagements until 1962. He recorded and appeared in concert with a symphony orchestra in 1956 and 1957, which led to occasional engagements with orchestras all over the United States.

Garner combined this rare artistic talent with a sparkling personality and good humor that extended from his playing to all aspects of life, and which was similarly infectious for all who knew him. At five feet two inches tall, he was sometimes called “elfin,” a description that fit with his ready smile, and the assorted grunts and giggles that accompanied his piano. He often sat with a Manhattan telephone directory on the bench to increase his power on the keys. The overall combination won him the admiration and appreciation of all kinds of musicians and lay audience members; he was the most commercially successful jazz pianist from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

He continued to record and tour frequently throughout the 1960s and 1970s until failing health forced his retirement in 1975. Garner died in 1977 in Los Angeles. A small sampling of the more than 200 records and some 200 original songs that Garner left behind includes “Mambo Moves Garner” (1954), “Feeling is Believing” (1956), “Paris Impressions” (1958), “That’s My Kick” (1967), “Gemini” (1972), “Magician” (1974), “Play it Again Erroll” (reissued 1974), and “Body and Soul” (reissued material, 1991). A ballet set to his recorded music was staged in 1977. He was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque in France and the keys to numerous American cities. But his true legacy lies in the millions of listeners he delighted and the thousands of musicians who continue to be inspired by his wholly original talent.


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