I remember being impressed by the title of Whitney Balliett’s New Yorker profile of Erroll Garner, “Being a Genius.“ I’d seen Garner on Ed Sullivan, and later on The Tonight Show, where his frequent appearances made it apparent that he was Johnny Carson’s favorite jazz pianist. And I’d certainly taken note of what a commonplace Garner’s Concert by the Sea was in the record collections I perused as a kid. But it wasn’t until Jack Bradley asked, “Where’s Erroll?” after reading my Desert Island list of 25 essential jazz recordings that I began to do a bit of “Garnerin',” to borrow from Jaki Byard’s song title, of my own.
Bradley, a Cape Cod native, worked for Joe Glaser as a photographer and assistant to Louis Armstrong (his collection of Pops memorabilia forms a major part of the Armstrong Museum in Queens), and then for Martha Glaser as Garner’s road manager. He said Erroll made it easy. “He was a happy-go-lucky guy," Bradley recalled. "He even picked up his own dry cleaning.” He also inspired loyalty, as Jack was still lobbying for the late pianist when he read my list 25 years ago. I’m so grateful he was. Garner has become a joyous, latter day discovery in my adventures with music, and serves as a reminder that there’ll always be something new to discover.
Garner’s unique style featured a left hand playing on-the-beat chords in the manner of a rhythm guitarist while he wove off-beat melodic lines and accents in the right. He composed “Misty,” “Nightwind,” “Solitaire,” and other richly melodic material, yet was famously unable to read music. And while he made little use of the standard 12-bar blues form, there’s plenty of blues feeling in his work. Len Lyons, in his survey of The Great Jazz Pianists, described Garner as “impish, imaginative, and energetic,” and in contrast to more refined stylists like John Lewis, he said Erroll was “a fun-loving ruffian.”
Here's rare interview footage of Garner; be sure to read the comments for knowing observations like Erroll "spoke just like he played."
And here’s the link to a passionate denunciation by Martha Glaser of the Ken Burns jazz documentary for its omission of Garner, whom Burns maintained was not enough of a “seminal inventor” to be included in the 19-hour-long series. The late pianist Dick Katz chimes in with a note extolling Erroll and saying “seminal means ‘innovative, new, unprecedented, important and influential.’ These terms fit Garner perfectly.”
Hear for yourself in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode where I’ll play Garner’s 1961 recording Easy to Love, a trio date featuring eleven standards including “My Blue Heaven,” “As Time Goes By,” and “September Song.” We’ll also hear the session Garner appeared on with Charlie Parker and vocalist Earl Coleman in 1947. Parker had just been released from Camarillo State Hospital in California where he was treated for the nervous breakdown he’d suffered the previous year, and he sounded refreshed and in peak form. Garner matches him all the way with his ebullient playing and the classic introductions he created for “This Is Always” and “Cool Blues,” as indelible as any laid down by the pianists who worked with Bird.
Notwithstanding his association with Bird, Hughes Panassie, the French jazz writer who railed against modern jazz, wrote that Garner was “the greatest pianist to emerge in jazz since World War II, [and] the only one who has created a new style which is in the true jazz tradition." Ahmad Jamal underscored the intrinsic nature and wide influence of Garner’s playing when he said of his fellow Pittsburgh native, “Anyone who has never been influenced by Erroll has not been in our field.”