Erroll Garner - Biography

By Nick Castro


Erroll Garner was a jazz pianist and composer from Pittsburgh, PA. Born in 1921 Garner would first approach his instrument of choice by age 3. Though both of Garner's parents sang together in a church choir, he never had any formal training and was one of very few great jazz musicians who could not read or write music. He was self taught. By the age of 7 he was already playing professionally and regularly on the local radio stations. Garner is widely considered a virtuoso on his instrument with a unique percussive left hand, based on ragtime piano and swing guitar chordings, often imitated by future generations. Another Garner trademark was to implement long and seemingly unrelated intros utilizing lightning fast glissandos and scale runs interspersed with modulating chord changes until he reached the actual composition at hand. He has an older brother, Linton, who is also a noteworthy pianist and composer.


Garner is most famous for having written the now standard "Misty" which was immortalized in the 1971 film Play Misty for Me and by Johnny Mathis who would adopt it, along with lyrics written by Johnny Burke, as his signature tune. Other famous singers to have done the song were Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lloyd Price and by country singer Ray Stevens. Garner went to the same high school as jazz pianists Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn, though not at the same time, and all three later served as alumni for the school. By the time he was 11 he being regularly requested to play on riverboats, which served as social meeting places, on the Allegheny river. As a boy he played with a chilrden's group The Candy Kids.


Garner would soon start playing in the local jazz clubs by high school. By 1944 Garner moved to New York where the booming bebop scene was in full swing. After a short stint with bassist Slam Stewart, Garner was to accompany Charlie Parker on his session for the album The Bird Blows the Blues (1947 - Dial), along with musicians Red Callender on bass, Doc West on drums and Earl Coleman singing. They recorded the session while in Hollywood, CA. Although Garner was not usually considered a bebop pianist his ability to play anything he heard and his amazing recall allowed to rise to the challenge.


In 1946 garner got a huge hit with the song "Laura", which he recorded in classic love song style. It sold half a million copies and he subsequently appeared on the Tonight Show, when Steve Allen was the host. In 1949 garner would record his first full length album as a soloist for the Savoy label. He released Yesterdays (1949 - Savoy), which was an amalgamation of previously recorded sessions with bassists Stewart and John Simmons as well as drummer Alvin Stoller. Some of his other albums included Erroll Garner with Billy Taylor (1945 - Savoy), Separate Keyboards (1945 - Savoy) and Serenade to Laura (1945 - Savoy).


The 1950's would see much success for Garner as he made several albums and television appearances throughout the decade. He also released the live album Concert by the Sea (1956 - Columbia), which featured bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best, made Garner the biggest selling jazz artist on the label. He followed this album with The Most happy Piano (1956 - Columbia), Swinging Solos (1956 - Columbia), He's Here! He's Gone! He's Garner (1956 - Columbia), Other Voices (1956 - Columbia), Soliloquy (1957 - Columbia) and Another Voice (1957 - Columbia).


The 60's would continue to treat Garner well and he would have a steady string of albums, hits and live dates. While at the peak of his success he released an album for Mercury called A You Brought a New Kind of Love (1963 - Mercury), which was a collection of songs used in the film A New Kind of Love. The arrangements are tight, concise and feature the use of a lovely string, horns and woodwinds section. Some of the famous musicians who would accompany Garner on this record are Buddy Collette, Barney Kessel, and Red Mitchell.


A new element to his 60's sound was the extensive use of latin percussion, usually a conga drummer. This was a popular maneuver in those times and Garner was quick to cash in. The audiences around the world responded in kind and Garner maintained his status as a worldwide star. This was also the era when he would score many films as well as Ballets, Broadway shows and orchestral pieces. His orchestral pieces, due to Garner's inability to write or read music, were played from memory and the orchestra would the sheet music transcribed by the arranger who would have to furiously try to follow what Garner had previously played.


In the 70's, when many of Garner's counterparts turned to electric pianos and more commercial synthesized sounds, Garner stuck to his unique style of acoustic piano playing. Distributing his own record company, Octave Records, through London Records, he released Magician in 1974. His energetic and fun style can be heard in standards, "Close to You" and "Watch What Happens". Garner utilized the tight rhythm section of bassist Bob Crenshaw, who has played with Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones, and drummer Grady Tate, who has played with Cal Tjader, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Stan Getz and countless others.


By 1975 Garner was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was forced to stop his intense touring and recording  schedule. It would only be two year before the disease would selfishly take him from this world. Garner died on January 2, 1977 at the young age of 55. With so much left to offer the world of jazz, this was a mighty blow to the music world. Many of Garner's compositions were lost because they were never written down and Garner himself did not have time to record them before his death.







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