Erroll Louis Garner was born June 15, 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Erroll began playing piano at the age of 3. He attended George Westinghouse High School, as did fellow pianists Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal. Garner was self-taught and remained an "ear player" all his life - he never learned to read music. At the age of 7, Garner began appearing on radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh with a group called the Candy Kids. By the age of 11, he was playing on the Allegheny riverboats. At age 14 in 1937 he joined local saxophonist Leroy Brown. He played locally in the shadow of his older pianist brother Linton Garner and moved to New York 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 famous "Cool Blues" session. Although his admission to the Pittsburgh music union was initially refused because of his inability to read music, they eventually relented in 1956 and made him an honorary member.
Garner is credited with having a superb memory of music. After attending a concert by the Russian pianist Emil Gilels, Garner returned to his apartment and was able to play a large portion of the performed music by recall. Short in stature (5 foot 2 inches), Garner performed sitting on multiple telephone directories, except when playing in New York City, where a Manhattan phone book was sufficient.
He was also known for his occasional 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. Until his death on January 2, 1977, he made many tours both at home and abroad, and produced a large volume of recorded work. Garner is buried in Pittsburgh's Homewood Cemetery. He was, reportedly, "The Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson's favorite jazz musician; Garner appeared on Carson's show many times over the years. Called "one of the most distinctive of all pianists" by Allmusic.com, Garner showed that a "creative jazz musician can be very popular without watering down his music" or changing his personal style. He is referred to 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." Garner's ear and technique owed as much to practice as to a natural gift. His distinctive style could swing like no other, but some of his best recordings are ballads, such as his best-known composition, "Misty". "Misty" rapidly became a jazz standard - and was famously featured in Clint Eastwood's 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 the use of the right-hand octaves. As it is especially shown by Garner's early recordings, another clear influence on him was the stride piano style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Erroll's definitive style however, was unique and had neither obvious forerunners nor competent imitators although, at an amateur level, more players attempted to imitate him than any other pianist in jazz history. A key factor in his sound was the independence of his hands. Garner would often play behind or ahead of the beat with his right hand while his springy left had rocked steady, creating insouciance and tension in the music, which he would resolve by bringing the timing back into sync. The independence of his hands also was evidenced by his masterful use of three against four figures and more complicated cross rhythms between the hands. He also would play introductions to pieces that sometimes utilized cacophonous or just weird sounds unrelated to the number, but which produced a sense of excitement in the audience not knowing what he was up to.
Whether in ultra slow ballads or rollicking up-tempo improvisation, this never failed to convey a humorous and titillating attitude to both the material at hand and the audience. His recording career started out in the late 1940s when several 7" EP records were made with tracks such as "Fine and Dandy" and "Sweet 'n' lovely". However, his 1955 recording, Concert by the Sea, ranks among his most popular work and features Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums. Ironically this recording of a performance at an army base in Carmel, California, was made using relatively primitive sound equipment, but Garner's inventiveness and swing made its point in each tune. Other notable works include 1951's Long Ago and Far Away and 1974's Magician, both of which see Garner perform a number of classic standards in his own style. Often the trio was expanded to add Latin percussion, usually a conga, with electric results.
What makes Garner's playing easy to recognize is his trademark introductions, which seem to make no sense until breaking dramatically into his exposition of the tune he will play, and the guitar strumming sound of his left hand, playing crotchet accompaniment to his rich sounding right hand. He places his chords and octaves on syncopated beats that swing very hard and can be used to build excellent tension, such as between phrases. The approach also suggests he was influenced by the iconic rhythm guitar work of Count Basie's long time guitarist, Freddie Green. But discerning listeners could find that while his even four left hand was a fixture, it was far from being the only rhythmic approach he took to playing.
Erroll Garner crossed over on January 2, 1977
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