Nearly thirteen years have elapsed since that memorable night when I wandered, slightly disillusioned by the lack of jazz on New York’s 52nd Street, into a dimly lit joint known as the “Three Deuces”. Its name as a famous hang-out for pianists in the 40s meant more to me than that of the pianist who was working there at the time – Erroll Garner. His opening chorus of Penthouse Serenade made me sit up and take notice, and I sat there for the rest of the night spellbound and amazed that such piano was being played in the name of jazz without my knowledge!
Erroll was at that stage going through his most difficult transition. He was established as a minor name, already a prolific record maker, and balancing delicately on a self-made pinnacle where he was being admired by jazz-minded people, yet equally sought by a public which was far less discerning and therefore less insistent on the qualities which go to make the best in jazz. At this crossroad, he indulged for a year or two in playing some outrageous “cocktail” music before settling down to the style of jazz which he had already established in his early recordings, made soon after he moved to New York.
Biographically, nothing very remarkable happened to Garner. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1921, and his pianistic upbringing may be accounted for by the fact that his father was a pianist, as are his brother and three sisters. The oddest and probably the most notable point is that he never had any academic training. Indeed it is said that to this day he does not read music. From this emerges one important conclusion – that Erroll Garner is one of those outstanding exceptions to every rule – a natural born jazz musician.
His earliest recordings date from the winter of 1944, when Erroll had just arrived in New York. Jazz critic Timme Rosenkrantz took him under his wing, and laid on some private jam sessions which were recorded. Although the distinctive Garner style is already evident, there is a tremendous “stride” influence in pieces like He Pulled A Fast One, available here on 77 (EPEU-2).
If I had heard him at this stage in his career, I would certainly have tipped him as the up-and-coming exponent of Harlem piano jazz, the school which gave us James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Waller and Tatum. The way he throws the rhythm in his brilliant solo version of In The Beginning (77 LA 12-6) is a genuine foretaste of things to come, for this has surely been one of Garner’s most characteristic traits. Being almost a generation younger than the Harlem deities, it was perhaps natural that he would adopt a much freer, though still highly melodic, style.
The Rosenkrantz sessions are also important in portraying Erroll in the role of accompanist behind Shavers and Dickenson. He plays a full-fisted piano, with strong bass chords, and occasional bursts of locked chords. Discussing Garner with a famous pianist / band leader recently, I was amazed to hear the assertion that it was Erroll who pioneered this style, having used it long before he arrived in New York. To the best of my knowledge these are the only tracks on which he performs in anything but a “featured solo” role.
The nebulous “cocktail piano” period is liberally covered by recordings on Savoy, Mercury and Atlantic; two of the best are The Way You Look Tonight (Esq. 10-061) and Someone To Watch Over Me (Modern 20-692). Gradually he drifted out of this rather commercial period so that by 1950 he was contracted to American Columbia and had already contributed to their memorable “Piano Moods” series (Col.33S1050). He deserted them in favour of Mercury in 1954, for two years, during which time he produced such memorable albums as Contrasts (Emarcy MG36001) and Afternoon Of An Elf (Mercury MPL6507).
Then one can take Garner’s second series with Columbia (1955-58) as the recordings of a pianist in the full growth of maturity. No one but a debunker would try to dismiss his Concert By The Sea (Philips BBL7106) as anything but a “tour de force”, and those which followed produced nothing but constructive ideas, eliminating by degrees the clichés which tended to overwhelm the listener in the earlier sessions. Whatever else one can say, Garner exudes happiness at the piano, as typified by Most Happy Piano (BBL 7282). George Avakian refers to the Time On My Hands track as “. . . one of the greatest Garner first choruses on record”, with which I would not disagree.
Several things about Garner’s style have made an unforgettable impact on my mind. The main one is that he uses the whole range of the piano, unlike most of his contemporaries. In this sense he belongs to the generation of “orchestral” pianists who not only used full chordal harmonies but virtually provided their own rhythm sections. Erroll’s approach to rhythm offers an entirely new approach to piano playing, in that his left hand frequently adopts what is in effect the role of the rhythm guitar. He is fortunate to be able to add to this a hypersensitive feeling for the beat, which enables him to displace the rhythm over lengthy melodic phrases, in a manner reminiscent of Earl Hines. His unfettered use of the dynamic properties of the piano make all his performances assume a dramatic aspect.
Garner’s influence on contemporary pianists has been widespread, and is most noticeable in the work of Ahmad Jamal, Mose Allison, and Bernard Peiffer. I think it is no coincidence that most jazzmen have been too busy pursuing the line of thought established by Tatum, Powell and Silver to take much note of the more direct approach which Garner makes. Whilst the rest of the jazz world is searching for lost chords and being forced to change styles almost monthly, Erroll is happily rolling out jazz and melody in a style which has remained virtually unaltered in more than fifteen years.
He has experienced contractual difficulties in recent years, resulting in his making no albums for an extended period. It is, therefore, pleasing to note that Octave Records Inc., who now record the pianist exclusively, plan to release three LPs yearly through Philips’ world-wide organisation, excluding the U.S., where ABC Paramount will be responsible for distribution. The first of these releases, Closeup In Swing, is reviewed in these columns.
I join with all Jazz Journal readers in welcoming Erroll Garner to Britain on this, his first and long overdue tour. His elfin personality will, I am sure, endear him to all who hear and meet him. His music, already a symbol of maturity in a fast changing era, should broaden the scope of jazz appreciation in this country.