Featuring: Erroll Garner

Today I am featuring a man who I consider to be the best jazz piano player that I’ve ever heard, Erroll Garner, famous for creating the song Misty that was played in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me (1971). However, he deserves way more recognition and credit than a link to a white man’s fim. It’s actually sad to learn so little is written about him whilst he was one of the best, or maybe even “the best”.

Erroll Louis Garner (June 15, 1921 – January 2, 1977) was an American jazz pianist and composer known for his swing playing and ballads. Garner was born with his twin brother Ernest in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 15, 1921, the youngest of six children in an African-American family. He attended George Westinghouse High School (as did fellow pianists Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal).

His best-known composition, the ballad “Misty”, has become a jazz standard. Scott Yanow of Allmusic calls him “one of the most distinctive of all pianists” and a “brilliant virtuoso.” He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6363 Hollywood Blvd. His live album, Concert by the Sea, first released in 1955, sold over a million copies by 1958 and Scott Yanow’s opinion is: “this is the album that made such a strong impression that Garner was considered immortal from then on.”

Garner began playing piano at the age of three. His elder siblings were taught piano by Miss Bowman. From an early age, Erroll would sit down and play anything she had demonstrated, just like Miss Bowman, his eldest sister Martha said. Garner was self-taught and remained an “ear player” all his life, never learning to read music. At age seven, he began appearing on the radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh with a group called the Candy Kids. By age 11, he was playing on the Allegheny riverboats. In 1937 he joined local saxophonist Leroy Brown.
He played locally in the shadow of his older pianist brother Linton Garner.

Garner moved to New York City in 1944. He briefly worked with the bassist Slam Stewart, and though not a bebop musician per se, in 1947 played with Charlie Parker on the “Cool Blues” session. Although his admission to the Pittsburgh music union was initially refused because of his inability to read music, it relented in 1956 and made him an honorary member. Garner is credited with a superb musical memory. After attending a concert by the Russian classical pianist Emil Gilels, Garner returned to his apartment and was able to play a large portion of the performed music by recall. Garner made many tours both at home and abroad, and regularly recorded. He was, reportedly, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson’s favorite jazz musician, appearing on Carson’s show many times over the years.

Short in stature (5 feet 2 inches [157 cm]), Garner performed sitting on multiple telephone directories. He was also known for his vocalizations while playing, which can be heard on many of his recordings. He helped to bridge the gap for jazz musicians between nightclubs and the concert hall.
Called “one of the most distinctive of all pianists” by Scott Yanow, Garner showed that a “creative jazz musician can be very popular without watering down his music” or changing his personal style. He has been described as a “brilliant virtuoso who sounded unlike anyone else”, using an “orchestral approach straight from the swing era but … open to the innovations of bop.” His distinctive style could swing like no other, but some of his best recordings are ballads, such as his best-known composition, “Misty”, which rapidly became a jazz standard – and was featured in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me (1971).
Garner may have been inspired by the example of Earl Hines, a fellow Pittsburgh resident but 18 years his senior, and there were resemblances in their elastic approach to timing and use of right-hand octaves. Garner’s early recordings also display the influence of the stride piano style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Fats Waller had been the one Erroll had looked up to and was his prime example of how and what he wanted to be like. He developed a signature style that involved his right hand playing behind the beat while his left strummed a steady rhythm and punctuation, creating insouciance and tension.

The independence of his hands also was evidenced by his masterful use of three-against-four and more complicated cross-rhythms between the hands. Garner would also improvise whimsical introductions—often in stark contrast to the rest of the tune—that left listeners in suspense as to what the piece would be. His melodic improvisations generally stayed close to the theme while employing novel chord voicings. Pianist Ross Tompkins described Garner’s distinctiveness as due to ‘happiness’. Erroll Garner often muttered, moaned and grunted along his solos, so much so that it felt a humorous distraction from the music to some. His would sometimes be a sheep like sound which was rather comical yet most possibly a musical expression.

In 2012 a film on Garner was released by Atticus Brady called No One Can Hear You Read, which Garner used to say when asked why he had never learned to read music. Footage of the piano prodigy playing and speaking was intercut with interviews: with admirers (including Woody Allen, Steve Allen and his fellow musicians Ahmad Jamal, also from Pittsburgh and Ernest McCarty, his bassist for many years); with family members, including his big sister Ruth Garner Moore and daughter Kim Garner; with George Avakian, the producer of Concert by the Sea; and with Jim Doran his biographer. The film attempts to address Garner’s fall from prominence after his death, reminding viewers how popular and original he was in his day as well as why he is considered in many quarters a legend, one of the true greats of jazz. On June 15, 2015, the estate of Martha Glaser, Garner’s longtime manager, announced the formation of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, a major new archival and musical celebration of Garner. The project includes the donation of the Erroll Garner Archive—a huge trove of newly discovered historical material from Garner’s life—to the University of Pittsburgh.
On September 18, 2015, Concert by the Sea was re-released by Sony Legacy in an expanded, three-CD edition that adds 11 previously unreleased tracks.
On September 30, 2016, Ready Take One was released on Sony Legacy/Octave featuring 14 previously unreleased tracks. In 2016, Downtown Music Publishing entered an exclusive worldwide administration agreement with Octave Music Publishing Corp. The deal covers all of Garner’s works including “Misty”, as well as Garner’s extensive archive of master recordings, many of which remain unreleased.On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Erroll Garner among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.

Garner sadly died at the young age of 56 of cardiac arrest related to emphysema on January 2, 1977. He is buried in Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery. May he play in heaven with all the other great ones. (I personally would have loved hearing or seeing him play with Django Reinhardt).

Check him out:

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, interweb, Nocturne, Erroll Garner Jazz Project, poetpas