. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake for a beloved piano performer.
** Linger to ponder a surprising American city of jazz.
** Savor a last ½ cup over a story of kindness & inspiration from a childhood hero.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’ve had no musical background.
Mine was all a gift. I was born with it.
– Erroll Garner
Slice of Cake:
Impossible to comprehend, yet so easy to appreciate.
That’s the best way to describe Erroll Garner’s music.
– Nancy Wilson,
jazz singer and NPR radio host 7
When Erroll Garner sat down to the piano,
he played in a way no one ever had before—
and no one has since.
Journalist Mark Whitaker called Garner “a dazzling virtuoso
whose music was complex enough to impress fans of the new bebop style
but accessible to those who missed the simpler swing era.” 2
It requires an effort
to appreciate the dissonant
experimentation of Thelonious Monk and
…the relentless improvisation of Art Tatum.
But enjoying Garner’s sound—
rhythmically infectious…playful and romantic—
was no work at all.
– Mark Whitaker,
Erroll Garner started on the piano early—very early.
At the age of 5 it was customary in our family,
and in many families in those days,
for children to start piano lessons.
But Erroll, at the age of 3, would
climb out his crib before anyone else got up in the morning,
and go downstairs to play the piano.
But the amusing thing to me has always been
that Erroll never played like a child. He always played like an adult.
I mean he was playing chords.
He wasn’t playing with one or two fingers or just a melody.
No, he started out playing as
any trained musician would.
– Ruth Garner Moore
Erroll’s older sister 1
Growing up, Erroll clearly soaked up the musical culture surrounding him in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Both his parents and all five of his older siblings were musical. (His oldest brother Linton Garner became a pianist/arranger for Fletcher Henderson.) And the Garner family often had musical friends stopping by for dinner. Like Art Tatum.
Art Tatum, the great piano player,
would come to our house.
Erroll imitated his style more than anybody else.
– Ruth Garner Moore 1
By high school, Garner had a reputation for being able to play anything.
But after high school, Garner’s musical career in Pittsburgh ran into an important limitation:
He couldn’t get a union card.
The local musicians union required members to be able to read sheet music.2
Erroll Garner played entirely by ear. He never learned how to read or write music.
He couldn’t write it down… But let him get
to a piano. That was the office.
– Ernest McCartey,
bassist in Erroll Garner’s trio 4
When he was 22, Garner moved to New York City and quickly
made a name for himself playing in jazz clubs on 52nd Street with
Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, and other jazz headliners.
One night in 1950,
a civil-rights-activist-turned-managing-agent named
Martha Glaser heard Erroll Garner play.
Soon afterwards, she became his manager, producer, and friend.
In fact, she made managing Garner her one and only job. 3
And she was good at it.
We played in these halls that
Mozart played in.
– Ernest McCartey4
By the late 1950s and 1960s, Erroll Garner was playing
the great concert halls of Europe, Asia, South America. 2
Erroll was probably a difficult person to manage.
If he wore a watch, I don’t think he ever wound it…
You have to give Martha a good deal of credit.
– George Avakian,
record producer 1
Erroll Garner was also a popular guest on late-night tv.
Johnny Carson once asked Erroll Garner what made his playing so unique. 1
When Garner hesitated to answer, Johnny turned and called over to the
Late Night Show band—asking pianist, Ross Thompkins, what he thought it might be…
Johnny: What is it that makes
your style immediately identifiable?
No matter what you’re playing, I can
always tell that it’s you.
Johnny: Ross, what is it? Let’s ask Ross.
Is it the left hand? Is it…?
Johnny (turning to Garner): Happiness?
Here are a few things that made an
Erroll Garner performance so unique
Let’s make it a list of 8 — as in “eight to the bar”…
1- A Manhattan Phone Book—or two
Erroll Garner was a short man—I’ve heard 5’2”, but that might be generous. At every performance, before Garner appeared, someone would come onto the stage and place a couple of phone books on top of the piano stool.
Garner would always sit at the piano this way, so as to reach the keys more comfortably.
One of his nicknames was the Little Giant. 1
He always sat on phonebooks…two or three at the most…
But he’d still be a giant even without the phone books!
– Ahmad Jamal 1
2- Joy & Spontaneity
Erroll Garner never rehearsed with his band. And there was never a set song list for his performances.
He would simply choose the tunes as he went along.
Garner rarely talked during performances, but his impish grin was always
flashing toward the audience or toward his bass player.
He very rarely glanced at the keyboard.
People who attended his live performances use words like:
mesmerizing, playful, optimistic.
Erroll Garner’s music…
springs from the heart rather than the head.
– Ross Russell,
3- Playing Favorites—in a new way
He charmed audiences with plenty of tunes they knew, though he never played a song the same way twice. Garner was always taking these familiar melodies off in unique—but still melodic—directions, full of lush chords and complex rhythms, creating new arrangements in his head as he was playing them.
He was constantly composing.
– Ahmad Jamal
Even on the albums,
it says ‘Head Arrangements by Erroll Garner.’
– Ernest McCartey 4
Garner had a huge repertoire of songs to choose from
because of his ability to hear a song once and play it.
No telling how many songs he actually knew…
Erroll could play anything that he ever heard… He knew
Classical music, he could do Beethoven…
He could do Rachmaninoff.
He could imitate anybody’s style.
– Ernest McCartey 4
4- “Those intros of his…”
At the beginning of most songs, Garner would play an introduction. These intros were often long and intricate as he teased the audience, making them guess which song he was leading into.
Sometimes his band didn’t know which song it was, either!
I have to admit, there was a couple of times…I was totally,
totally lost…And I had to just stand there on the stage.
…He played an intro that was so magnificent
that I couldn’t even zoom in on what tune
he had disguised in the intro…
It kept me alert.
– Ernest McCartey 4
When Erroll finally hit the downbeat, and began some well-known chorus, the audience would burst into applause and there were smiles all around.
The great game was to see if you could
tell what he was going to play
before the introduction ended….
I must admit, it was pretty seldom
that I could tell what Erroll was going to play any
faster than 4 bars before he went into the chorus.
– George Avakian,
record producer 1
He would pounce on the keyboard and do a
chaotic introduction and
you didn’t know…where he was going to go.
…Although his sidemen generally came in on one—
after about 30 seconds of turbulence.
– Dick Hyman,
jazz pianist and composer 1
Erroll Garner knew the piano so well, he could play in any key.
He seemed to revel in choosing the most obscure keys, like F-sharp or C-flat.
Here’s a good explanation of the complexity of Garner’s style,
as explained by an anonymous jazz lover:
In terms of his complex genius,
here is a video of Garner playing Honeysuckle Rose.
After the bridge, he begins a series of turnarounds
which ascend up the circle of fifths until
he reaches an octave above where he began.
He then uses the first phrase of the tune repeatedly
as a sort of turnaround
that descends the circle of fifths
until reaching “tonic” (first tone or keynote),
where he kind of sits and plays around a bit to end the tune.
6- A unique sound
Here’s a great description of Garner’s playing that I read online:
Imagine playing two songs on either hand simultaneously
then switching hands on the fly and changing tempo gradually—
by speeding up on one hand and slowing down on the other.
Polyrhthym on top of polyrhythm…9
Erroll Garner liked to play chords with his left hand, pumping a steady four-to-the-bar beat, almost like a guitar. While his right hand, quite independently, went anywhere.
It was like he was making
his right hand into a miniature orchestra.
He very often clustered notes together like a brass section…
then he would break it up with a soloist…
I always thought that was the picture in Garner’s arrangements.
– Dick Hyman 1
The way he played piano, it sounded like
a whole band. There was this kind of
fullness that, as far as I’m concerned,
only Erroll could do.
– Maurice Hines,
dancer and choreographer 1
7- A Range of Moods
Erroll Garner music had a range of moods.
On one end of that range is the more be-bop sound you can hear
on I’ll Remember April or Mambo Carmel on his live album, Concert by the Sea (1955).8
Next there’s his signature upbeat sound, which is full of joy,
like in this recording of You’re Driving Me Crazy, recorded in 1952.
(I found it on the Body & Soul CD released in 1991.)
Every time he played, I was astounded.
Not only intellectually…but I felt
happy after I worked a night with Erroll.
– Ernest McCartey
bassist in Garner’s trio 4
And then there’s Garner’s lush, romantic ballad style, that he often used playing Misty.
(More about Misty in ‘Take-Away Box’ below.)
I can’t think of another jazz artist…who had
that quality of romanticism.
– Steve Allen,
original host of The Tonight Show 1
On the other end of Erroll Garner’s range is his fully-orchestrated album called Other Voices, which he recorded in 1957 with conductor Mitch Miller, with arrangements by Garner himself. 8
People were making
albums with strings in those days, and Erroll wanted to do it.
I said, ‘Who would you like to have
do the arrangements?’
He said, ‘Oh, I’ll do them myself.’
…Well, I didn’t want to
embarrass Erroll by saying,
‘You’re going to write the arrangements and you don’t read music?’
But he anticipated that and
he said, ‘I’ll just simply dictate what I want for the string parts
and somebody can write it down
and that’s the way we’ll do it.’
– George Avakian,
And… that’s the way they did it.
The ‘somebody to write it down’ job was filled by the talented pianist-arranger Nat Pierce.
I dearly love imagining the reactions of those orchestra musicians
to Erroll Garner’s habit of not attending practice sessions,
to his way of recording every song in one take.
Here’s what I think is the best of this album: the tune This is Always: 8, 10
Those of us who do this for a living
know that some of what he did was impossible.
But he did it.
– Steve Allen 1
He could play a song inside out.
He could run it backward.
He could play a melody in one hand
and another song in the other—all at the same time….
‘Impossible.’ That pretty much sums it up.
What he did, you can’t do. A pianist cannot do that.
View some film of Erroll,
you can see the delight and surprise on his face
what sometimes goes down… I mean, he’s amazed himself!
He made magic.
– Ernest McCartey 4
Happy 99th Birthday
** Erroll Garner **
– born June 15, 1921
in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
What was different about Erroll
was one word: Pittsburgh.
Pittsurgh produced this kind of talent.
– Ahmad Jamal 1
I’ve been thinking this week about the power of neighborhoods—
how much we’re influenced by the place we grow up.
Erroll Garner was by all accounts a child prodigy at the piano.
But he was also born into a very specific time and place:
At a time when jazz was ascending toward its highest height—
it was called the Jazz Age, after all!
And in a place with a deep history of creativity and culture.
Erroll Garner grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The African-American neighborhoods here were not as large
as those in Chicago or New York—
and yet, as a center for Black businesses and culture,
Pittsburg’s Hill District was hugely influential.
Asked about his own early musical influences,
[the legendary bassist] Ray Brown
would credit…the ‘tons of music’ in Pittsburgh,
from the competitive school scene
to the theaters where the best bands in the country
could be heard virtually every week of the year.
– Mark Whitaker,
By the 1910s,
there were two African-American classical orchestras
in Pittsburgh, as well as America’s first African-American opera company.
There were dozens of jazz and blues clubs. High schools had strong arts program.2
And almost every home had a piano.
And it wasn’t just music.
The African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh were active with culture, clubs, and events.
Throughout the 1930s,
Pittsburgh had the most widely-circulated African-American newspaper—the Pittsburgh Courier. 5
formed associations, starting in the 1890s,
to discuss books, organize charities,
and later to campaign for
women’s right to vote. 6
The city’s African-American elite met each other at the Loendi Club
to talk business in the elegant dining room, or relax in the wide leather chairs of its library. 2
And for those who couldn’t afford the Loendi,
there was the late-night jam sessions at the Crawford Grill.
The Grill became the
hottest nightspot on the Hill,
a place where black and white hipsters came to
mingle over the club’s famous daiquiris,
and where all the top Negro entertainers…
headed after their concerts were over.
– Mark Whitaker 2
It was at Crawford Grill in 1934 that pitcher Satchel Page, with dancer Bojangles Robinson as his best man, married his Pittsburgh-born bride, Janet Howard—and then signed a new two-year contract with a Negro League Baseball team called the Pittsburgh Crawfords—all on the same night. 2
A generation younger than Erroll Garner is
another native of Pittsburgh—the playwright August Wilson.
His series of ten plays, The Pittsburgh Cycle, were each set in a different decade of the 20th century.
Piano Lessons won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1990) and
Fences won a Pulitzer Prize (in 1987) as well as Tony Award for Best Play.
See special note in footnotes for
more about Pittsburg’s Hill District
Erroll Garner said he was born with his musical gift.
But where he was born helped him to develop the rich unique talent that
delighted audiences all over the world.
Here are some of the other jazz music stars
produced and nurtured in Erroll Garner’s Pittsburg neighborhood:
Billy Strayhorn (composer and song writer for the Duke Ellington Orchestra),
Mary Lou Williams (pianist and prolific composer/recording artist),
Billy Eckstine (band leader and jazz bass-baritone singer),
Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines (influential jazz pianist and band leader),
Lena Horn (jazz singer, dancer, and film star),
Ray Brown (legendary bassist and Ella Fitzgerald’s husband),
Ahmad Jamal (pianist, bandleader, and educator).
“Half Cup More”
As a child, Erroll Garner was inspired by a family friend named Art Tatum.
As a child, jazz vocalist Suzanne Pittson was inspired by a family friend named Erroll Garner.
Suzanne Pittson: My Encounters with Erroll Garner
I was 7 when I met Erroll for the first time. He did a solo concert at a music store owned by my mom’s best friend, and while signing autographs, he held my 4-year-old brother Randy and we called him ‘Uncle Erroll.’
A few years later when I was 12, Erroll was doing a week-long engagement in San Francisco’s North Beach and he came to our house for dinner one evening before the first set. By now I had been playing piano for 4 years so after dinner Erroll asked me to play. I performed a piece by Robert Schumann and I remember him holding his head and saying, “If I could only read music like that!”
At this point in my life I had heard many of Erroll’s recordings so when I was done, I got up from the piano and asked ‘Uncle Erroll’ if he could please play Misty. He did. I will never forget that performance.
That evening my family drove Erroll to his gig at Basin Street West in North Beach. I remember him sitting on the New York City phone book. His trio was Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums. Because of my piano training, I could hear that Erroll spontaneously modulated through multiple keys while the bass player used his ears to adapt. The playfulness, element of surprise and deep swing groove were infectious.
I went on to earn a Bachelor of Music and Master of Arts in classical piano and I attended Erroll’s gigs whenever possible. As I got older I developed even more appreciation for his genius. Erroll was a singularity in the history of jazz. Being self-taught, he created a unique style that is impossible to emulate because of its complexity and technical demands. Thankfully, no one ever told him that what he was doing was difficult, so he was able to freely express his musical ideas and joy of life through the piano.
In 1980, I embarked on a career as a jazz vocalist. I am absolutely confident that the early interactions with Erroll, his audacious spirit and strong rhythmic concept, have everything to do with who I have become as an artist. I also saw the value of generosity and encouragement. By him acknowledging my ability on the piano when I was young, I was able to forge ahead toward my dreams. I am forever grateful!!
– Suzanne Pittson is a jazz vocalist and
Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Jazz Studies
at the City College of New York.
Suzanne’s story is a tough act to follow!
But I do have a personal note to share…
This week marks not only my 50th post—
but it’s also sky-t-tray’s one-and-a-half year anniversary!
How about celebrating with one of my favorite songs by one
of my very favorite jazz artists?
Here’s Body & Soul by Erroll Garner.
Erroll Garner’s most famous song is one he composed at a pretty harrowing moment.
He was on a plane coming to California
and there was a terrible thunderstorm…
Everybody on the plane was really very disturbed.
And Erroll said he thought… We’re not going to make it.
– Ruth Garner Moore 1
Erroll’s sister Ruth explains that this is when Garner composed the song Misty,
it came into his head during that storm on a 1954 plane trip.
Not being able to write out the music he was creating, what Garner needed was a piano—quick.
Journalist Mark Whitaker tells this story as well…
As it landed, he looked through the window to see
a magnificent rainbow through a soft mist…
He found himself fingering his knees and humming.
Thinking Garner might be sick, the passenger in the next seat
called a flight attendant. But he was just composing in his head.
– Mark Whitaker 2
When the plane did make it and landed
he said he couldn’t get out of the airport fast enough…
he told the taxi to take him straight
to Columbia Records and he recorded it right away.
– Ruth Garner Moore 1
Erroll Garner released that first recording of Misty on his 1955 album Contrasts.
After that, pretty much everybody has been playing Misty:
– Johnny Burke wrote lyrics for Misty in 1955.
– Crooner Johnny Mathis, with his 1959 album Heavenly, made Misty his signature song.
– Before long, Misty became a jazz standard—recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Carmen McRae and Donna Hightower to Ahmad Jamal—even country star Ray Stevens, whose recording of Misty hit #14 on the 1975 Billboard charts.
– And it was in 1971 that Clint Eastwood used Mathis’ version of Misty in his film Play Misty for Me.
Here’s one of the many, many recordings of Erroll Garner playing Misty…
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
Many thanks to Steve Hardesty who, with very little warning,
came through with a photo for me.
I want to thank Barrio Stories Project/Borderlands Theater in Tucson,
and the District 6 Museum in Cape Town
for introducing me to some fundamentals about
dynamic neighborhood preservation.
More about Tucson’s Barrio neighborhoods:
More about Cape Town’s District Six neighborhood:
I want to especially thank
Suzanne for generously sharing with me
her story about Erroll Garner.
Suzanne Pittson is a jazz vocalist,
Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Jazz Studies at the City College of New York.
I wish I could say
that Erroll Garner’s neighborhood in Pittsburgh is thriving to this day.
It is not.
Starting in 1956, Pittsburg’s Hill District was largely destroyed,
bull-dozed to make way for the Civic Arena—
a huge building that was originally to be
constructed on a site with a view of the river.
Instead, wealthy residents of the river neighborhood
were able to put a stop to that plan,
and the arena was built in the primarily African-American Hill District.
“To make room for the arena,
the city used eminent domain to displace
8,000 residents and 400 businesses
from the lower Hill District,
the cultural center of black life in Pittsburgh.”
– from “Race and Renaissance:
African-Americans in Pittsburgh Since World War II.”
by Joe W Trotter & Jared N Day
The first building destroyed in 1956
was a house on Epiphany Street that
once belonged to William Penn
(founder of the Pennsylvania Colony in 1681).
Other buildings lost included:
Bethel AME Church, the oldest African-American church in the city
YMCA on Chatham Street
Bible Institute and Improvement of the Poor shelter
Old Bath House, once a stop on the Underground Railroad
Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read
a documentary by Atticus Brady (2012)
The Untold Story of the
Other Great Black Renaissance (2018)
by Mark Whitaker
Martha Glaser was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants.
Like Garner, she was also born in the Pittsburgh area,
but her family later moved to Detroit where she attended high school
and then graduated with an economics degree from
Wayne State University in 1942.
Galvanized by the Detroit race rights that same year,
she became a civil rights activist.
She was also a jazz lover, she helped organize the
famous Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, which started in 1944.
Glaser then moved to Manhattan and
started her own management agency.
In 1950, she heard Erroll Garner for the first time
and quickly signed an exclusive contract with him.
Martha Glaser continued as Erroll Garner’s manager
for the rest of his life—
a twenty-seven year partnership.
Ernest McCartey toured the world,
playing stand-up bass with Erroll Garner for more than 5 years.
McCartey is quoted from a 1981 interview with Gil Noble
Established in 1907, the Pittsburgh Courier
was one of the top selling black newspapers
in the U.S. by the 1930s.
During the early 1940s,
the Courier sent more African-American war correspondents
to Europe than any other newspaper in the U.S.
From the beginning, The Courier advocated for
improvements in housing, health and education,
Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith
is credited with recommending Jackie Robinson to
Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
The Courier then paid for Smith to travel with Robinson,
who had to stay in separate hotels from his teammates.
Wendell Smith traveled with Robinson in the minors in 1946
and with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947
(Baseball info from Mark Whitaker—see #2 above)
Pittsburg Women’s Suffrage Centenial
Erroll Garner: The Joy of a Genius
NPR Jazz Profiles with Nancy Wilson
September 19, 2007
Here are descriptions of two Erroll Garner albums:
Concert by the Sea and Other Voices:
*** Concert by the Sea (1955)
This album is from a live concert of Erroll Garner Trio,
with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums,
recorded on September 19, 1955 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The concert was given for the servicemen from nearby Fort Ord.
It was originally recorded by Will Thornbury to play once
over the Armed Forces Radio Network
for the servicemen who couldn’t attend the concert.
But Martha Glaser, Garner’s manager, was at the concert
and she knew it was something special.
She flew back to New York with a copy of the tape on her lap.
(Columbia engineers had to work on the tape
since the acoustics were poor and the piano somewhat out of tune.)
*** Other Voices (1957)
Recorded in New York, September 2, 1956, and May 27 & 31, 1957
Orchestra conducted by Mitch Miller
Arrangements by Erroll Garner, in association with Nat Pierce
Piano by Erroll Garner, in all tracks.
a commentator named illwiz
in June 2020 wrote:
“He was didactic, and could polyrhythm on top of polyrhythm
separately in both hands,
imagine playing two songs on either hand simultaneously
then switching hands on the fly and changing the tempo
gradually on both hands speeding one up
and slowing other down.. And more.”
For yet another example of Erroll Garner’s range.
Here is that same tune he recorded with Mitch Miller’s orchestra,
but this time he’s playing with Charlie Parker and—
even more surprising, and rare, for a Garner tune—there’s a vocalist.
This is Always, (recorded 1947) with piano by Errol Garner and vocals by Earl Coleman
(song written by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon)
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2023