More About Erroll Garner

This past weekend Mr. Rifftides posted a piece about Erroll Garner in which he citied the “cheer and optimism” that was inherent in his playing, recommended some wonderful CDs, and included a link to a fabulous YouTube videoclip. My husband was the bass player on Garner’s very first recording and I know just how much he loved Garner’s playing because the two most frquently played recordings during the early days of our courtship were Nancy Wilson’s Lush Life and Garner’s Concerts By The Sea. Here’s what John Levy has to say about that session and about working with Garner (excerpted from “Men, Women, and Girl Singers” – pages 58-60):

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.

8 thoughts on “More About Erroll Garner”

  1. I was glad to get to know Errol while we were on a Birdland tour. He was a wonderful story teller, and a marvelous companion. His manager, Martha Glaser, got him out of night clubs and onto the concert stage (she moved him from Joe Glaser to Sol Hurok!)and created space for him to just be himself and play his music. He lived at the Carnegie Hall apartments, ate at the Russian Tea Room, and played on the finest pianos, enjoying life to the fullest. What a guy!

  2. Was Erroll Garner married? I have never heard mention of a wife and was just curious. I have loved his music since 1958 when I first heard him “live” on the Oklahoma State University campus. I fell in love with his style immediately and never regretted it. He was a wonderful pianist. I only wish I could have known him personally.
    Thank you for any answer you may care to give.
    Bill

  3. This business of keys and not reading is quite apocryphal. There is a story about some society woman going up to Erroll after a concert and saying, “Mr. Garner, you play so well considering that you don’t read music,” at which Erroll responded: “Madam, nobody comes to concerts to hear me read music.”

    Also, there is this talk about Erroll only playing in one or two keys and none of the others. Dave Brubeck, who has said that Garner was a favorite of his, told me that that is a lot of b.s., that “Erroll played in all the keys and changed keys often when playing.” Erroll Garner was a remarkable entertainer who could do with three people what most 17-piece jazz bands could not do: consistently capture the audience. The fact that he didn’t read music was probably a blessing is no written notes ever got in the way of his art and his creativity. We can all learn from him.

  4. I have been “in love” with Erroll Garner since I heard him for the first time…. am still, actually .. he wss/is unique!!!

  5. I am 68 years old and obtained my first album concert by the sea, when I was 10 years old and it still sounds good. Erroll Garner will always be my favorite jazz artist.

  6. IN THE 1960’S, I purchased two of Erroll Garner’s LP recordings. (The most happy Piano) and (Moods). I still listen to Erroll’s LP’s in 2015. I am another person who composes my piano music in real time.

  7. In the mid 1950s my friend and I traveled from Providence to Cape Cod to hear Garner. I’d seen him before and so much enjoyed his piano, then and now. Once this teenager got up enough courage to approach him as he emerged from his dressing room. I just told him how much I enjoyed his music and he nodded and thanked me. I think I patted him on the back as he sat down on his Manhattan phone book. I put his music on You Tube and while I am writing or correcting papers I listen to his wonderful music. What a gift to the world!

  8. I believe some long ago scientist predicted it would be a few more centuries before another Erroll Garner re- appeared. I do not recall much about the scientific basis of his prediction…. the total independence of Garner’s large hands, his unique ability to split time… his perfect ear and memory and the ability to improvise on a tune alone…but I do remember this: Erroll Garner spontaneously created a beautiful music entirely his own; that he brought joy and relief from even the most difficult days we must endure on this lovely blue-green planet, and in doing so became another of those best friends we have never met.

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