One recording date I’ll never forget was with Erroll Garner. On September 25, 1945 we recorded four sides, or singles, for Savoy Records: “Somebody Loves Me,” “Laura,” “Back Home Again in Indiana,” and “Stardust.” But the reason I remember it so clearly is not because of the tunes, but because the elevator operators were on strike. When I got to the building and saw what was happening, I called upstairs from a pay phone in the lobby, and got the producer, Herman Lubinsky on the phone. “You’ll have to pay me an extra $50 for hauling my bass all the way up there,” I told Herman. In those days the union didn’t require you to get paid for cartage, but I wasn’t going to play a note until he agreed. That’s probably the only time I wished I had stayed a piano player.
When I finally got upstairs Erroll really looked surprised. “Man, how’d you make it up 30 flights of stairs carryin’ that bass?” Later he told me that he tried to get the date postponed. “Can you imagine? Herman asked me ‘Can’t you do without the bass?’ I told him ‘no way,’ and that’s when you called.”
Herman did pay me the extra money, but we fell out over it. “You’ll never work for me again,” was the last I ever heard from him, but I didn’t care. Once we started to play, the memory of all those stairs just disappeared.
It was just a trio session—Erroll and I, and a drummer named George de Hart. All I remember about this cat is that he was a hunchback from New Jersey who, just like Denzil, was a good solid drummer; he just laid it down, nothing fancy. I never saw him again after that date.
There were no parts to read on this session because Erroll, like many of the great musicians, didn’t read or write music. He picked standard tunes and we figured out little interludes, intros and endings, talked down the solo choruses and then recorded. We did all four sides in a single three-hour session in those days; none of this elaborate re-recording and punching in individual notes or mixing in a different solo. We might have run it through once or twice, and then they’d roll tape. If we didn’t like the way it went we might do two or three takes, but that was it.
Erroll Garner had a natural gift, perfect pitch, and Earl Hines and others influenced his style. I think Hines was one of his favorites. Erroll’s style was orchestral rather than pianistic. He had a full-orchestra sound, with a rhythm left hand that sounded like a guitar comping while he did off-beat stuff with the right hand. Comping is when one player lays down the chords for a soloist to improvise over; it is supposed to complement what the other player is doing. Erroll had a really unique style. He wasn’t a bebop player but he was highly respected and admired by Bud Powell and other pianists of that era; actually, all musicians admired Erroll. He was a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. He didn’t have a lot to say, but he always seemed to be a happy fellow sitting on top of his telephone books and humming along with his tunes.
On a live gig, Erroll would never call a tune; he’d just start vamping and then suddenly take off. Stuff Smith was the same way; he never said what he was going to play. Some things you had introductions on, so before he’d go into it, maybe he’d give you a little cue, then again, maybe not. Sometimes you’d have to wait for the first couple of notes to know what he was doing.
Erroll sure could mess up a lot of drummers and bass players because he had a pronounced behind-the-beat kind of style that some players couldn’t get with; they’d get lost. He’d be swinging, but you weren’t supposed to drop back with him, you were supposed to stay on top, rather than behind. In other words you couldn’t play laid back with Erroll, because if both of you laid back you’d just drag it down.
No pianist has come along since who has the same kind of feeling as Erroll Garner. I loved to play with him, and when we were both playing on 52nd Street I couldn’t wait to go to work at night so I could run down and catch one of his sets during our break. One night he even came by the Onyx and sat in with our group. He was such a nice man, and he’d do all kinds of crazy things on that piano. But it was always swinging, always moving. Garner would set down the tempo and that’d be it, and all you had to do was just play the basic notes. And that would be the right thing to do because he layed it down for you. And he never played anything the same way twice. He might play a tune in an A flat tonight, tomorrow night he’d play it in A, and the next night it might be in B, wherever he decided to start off from the piano, that’s the key it would be in because he knew nothing about keys. Erroll Garner was a joy to play with and I miss him.