Erroll Louis Garner was one of the most intuitive, exciting, and original composers and jazz pianists of the modern jazz era. The brilliant American virtuoso was best known for his ballads and swing music garnered a coveted star spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Erroll Garner was born on the 15th of June, 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest among his six siblings, including his twin brother. He went to the George Westinghouse High School, along with eminent pianists like Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn. Garner learned piano at the mere age of three. The Garner’s had a family piano tutor known as Miss Bowman, and young Erroll was talented enough to replicate her notes. He self-taught himself to play and became an “ear player,” never learning to read music throughout his career. Soon, his talents brought upon an early opportunity, as he started making regular appearances on the Pittsburgh radio station KDKA as part of a program called “Candy Kids.” As he turned eleven, he was already performing on the Allegheny riverboats.
In 1937, he started collaborating with Leroy Brown, a saxophonist. In his free time, he predominantly played with his older sibling Linton Garner, also a pianist. In 1944, Erroll went to New York City, where he started associating with Slam Stewart, a bassist. Garner's first recording was a distinct romantic number called “Laura.” He also made frequent appearances on “The Tonight Show with Steve Allen,” boosting his image.
In 1944, he released his first album, a five-volume overture through Blue Note Records. Multiple numbers were released in the late 1940s, including “Summertime,” “Skylark,” and “Fine and Dandy.” However, these were later cut off as side-tracks. In 1947, he also played alongside Charlie Parker, even though he wasn’t a natural at bebop. He also applied to the Pittsburgh Music Union but was initially refuted due to his inability to read music. However, in 1956, he was finally included as an honorary member.
In 1950, he managed to perform at the prestigious Cleveland Music Hall with the help of Martha Glaser, his manager. The show broke a century-old musical equilibrium - Erroll became the first and only jazz musician to perform at a traditionally classical concert venue, and also under the patronage of the legendary impresario Sol Hurok.
In 1955, his live album titled “Concert by the Sea” became the top-selling jazz collection, despite featuring primitive sound equipment. He still stands as the biggest-selling jazz artist in the history of Columbia Records. In the next two decades, Garner continued his tours along with recordings, also infusing Latin flavors in his music. In 1964, he appeared in the BBC music series titled “Jazz 625” hosted by Steve Race, which further infused his popularity in Europe. In 1977, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on the 2nd of January.
What he lacked in height, Garner made it up by using multiple telephone directories as chairs. He was also famous for his prolific use of vocalizations, which is evident in most of his recordings. This, in turn, worked as an embodiment to jazz musicians, who could now try and bridge the gap between concert halls and nightclubs. Erroll also exemplified how a jazz musician can thrive in changing times, sticking to his original style. Erroll utilized an orchestral approach with subtle innovations of bop, an influence of the swing era. Although he was famous for his swing music, most of his best works are ballads, which personified his virtuosity. ‘Misty,” his most famous composition is a ballad piece and become the standard in jazz repertoire.
Garner was also highly influenced by Earl Hines, another Pittsburgh musician, whose utilization of right-hand octaves and elastic approach was reflected in Garner’s own style. His early recordings offered a glimpse into the world of stride piano, especially the styles of the legendary Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Erroll’s melodic improvisations ventured closer to the theme with a touch of diverse chord voicings. He generally used his right hand to play behind the beat, while his left hand strummed up the rhythm simultaneously. This helped him garner adequate rhythmic tension, while also crafting a carefree signature style. His right-hand melodies would play catch up to the increasing tempo, which would subsequently create a dramatic effect, famously referred to as the “gas pedal,” - sounding like an automobile accelerator. This constant shift of tempo became famous as the “Russian Dragon.”
Garner took it to the next level. He would play with complicated cross-rhythms, masterfully using the trio settings to go full-throttle. He also frequently improvised his introductions, often leaving no clues regarding the rest of the tune. This allowed him to create suspense, and keep his listeners on their toes.
A Jazz Phenomenon
What’s considered a prime jazz legacy? The crème de la crème? A collection of exceptional recordings complemented by a signature instrumental style? A concert or studio legend leaving a horde of imitators behind? A cultural revolutionary who also produced multiple hit numbers? Or, is it the first jazz pianist to win a legal battle with a major record label? There is a common name that sticks out, a peerless composer-pianist who fulfilled all those criteria, and even more.
A dedicated jazz project to his name, Adele's use of his famous interlude in her most recent album, a documentary film titled “No One Can Hear You Read” celebrating his legacy, along with unique, over-the-top romanticism swinging for the fences - that’s Erroll Garner. A perfume of sound covering his entire keyboard, mesmerizing the audience, as he casually breaks their trance by suddenly emerging with the nonchalance of a trippy, merry and a favorite tune - there lies the beauty of Erroll Garner, a tongue-in-cheek moment, always greeted by an inevitable round of applause. That’s musical wit that never failed, it’s rare, a true phenomenon.