JJ 12/62: In My Opinion – Erroll Garner

Sixty years ago the composer of Misty gave his opinion on James P. Johnson, Ralph Sutton, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and others. First published in Jazz Journal December 1962

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Left to right: Ronnie Scott, unknown, Sinclair Traill, Erroll Garner. Photo by Larry Ellis/JJ Archives

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgement influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

In addition to being one of the really great jazz musicians alive today, Erroll Garner is also more than something of a wit. Because of this, I have always thought it a pity he doesn’t announce his own shows for he is a natural raconteur with an explosive personality that would hold any audience. He is also a keen listener to other musicians, in a way that is rare today. Seldom have I seen anyone so enthralled as he was when I played him the Earl Hines record spoken about below – his admiration for a brother pianist was frank, wholehearted, and all enveloping. – Sinclair Traill


“Cuttin’ Out”. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith. Vogue LD 045
Willie has a style all his own. In a manner of speaking he swings with his left hand and then likes to play those pretty things with his right. I love his playing. He also writes those pretty little things and he plays them like that – in that, there was one place here where he broke off, played a flowery break with his right hand, and then dragged back into tempo again. He alone does that. He’s a great character you know, is Willie. Just before we left New York on this trip I met up with him and he gave me all kinds of advice. As I left him he said he was off to the Metropole to give son Claude Hopkins a little lesson. “Claude’s young”, he said, “and I’ll just tell him how to go when he gets a little older!” He calls everyone son you know; but he calls me young son, ’cause I’m not as old as the rest of them.

“Pleadin’ For The Blues”. Bertha Chippie Hill (Jazz Sounds of the 20s). Parlophone PMC 1177
I love Chippie’s singing very, very much. A lot of people never got to know Chippie. When she worked on the Street with us, she worked in a place called Ryans, but not many people got to hear her. The critics didn’t bother, somehow. I don’t know if she was on the Continent before she came with us in 1949, but I am sure she was better known there than she was back in the States. We played a place called Pierre Delaunay’s and we also did the Ambassador. We all had a lot of fun, for Chippie was a real happy-go-lucky girl. One time I remember a Rolls Royce came round to the stage door to take her out somewhere. She made a great play when she saw this Rolls Royce and pretended it couldn’t possibly be for her. So she goes up to Coleman Hawkins and she says, “Well Bean, you’re the biggest thing on this show, so maybe you had better go on and get in that car. It’s too big for me, baby!”

We had a happy group along that time. There was Howard McGhee, Slam, the bass player, James Moody, and Trummy Young for part of the tour, and Coleman and me. And, of course, Chippie. She was a great blues singer: she had good diction and she caught the eye when she was on stage. She always said she liked my piano behind her. I was playing much the same in those days – a little of that locked-hand style you spoke about, but maybe I was a little bluesy. That record you played which was made in Timme Rosenkrantz’ flat that time. I was more bluesy then. ’Course that was made around four o’clock in the morning. Just been issued here? Yes. I know: I found out!

“Old Fashioned Love”. James P. Johnson. London HB-U 1057
I met James P. once at the Hammond Theatre. He was doing an act up at Cafe Society, a wonderful club. They had a host of piano players in there, and they were all good. Then I used to see him at Luckey Roberts’ place. Luckey had a club, you know, and a lot of show people used to get there each night. And the piano players, they would all finish up there. They used to go on to six o’clock in the morning. Tatum, he would be there, and of course James P. and heaps of others. Luckey played wonderful piano – and still does, incidentally. And he wrote a few good songs too: Moonlight Cocktail is one of his. That was a fine group of piano players, those from New York: Luckey, Willie, Fats and James P. They all believed in playing with both hands – and I do, too! There was another great pianist who used to hang out with them in those days. named Marlowe Morris. He only plays organ these days, but he was a wonderful piano player. But I’m telling you, back in those days there were few better than Luckey.

“Christopher Columbus”. Ralph Sutton (Backroom Piano). Columbia 33SX 10061
That’s the tune Mezz Mezzrow says he wrote! Said so to us in Paris only last week – I wonder if Christopher Columbus really did discover America after all?

I know Ralph very well, and like his playing very, very much. Last time I saw him was out on the Coast about two and a half years ago. He was working at the Hangover Club with Earl – Ralph was the intermission pianist – and I might say he’s too good for that really. They don’t listen, you know, yet the night I heard him he sounded very wonderful. Both hands like I like it – very accurate. It was a good room for both piano players. I would like Ralph to have more success than has come his way. He has been in and out of a lot of bands, but if he could only get the right people to hear him play solo, he could really go places. He modelled himself on Fats and he plays that way better than anyone. He was great for Jack Teagarden, when Jack had that first, good band, but as Jack said to me, “. . . that guy likes to play by himself.” And I suppose he’s better that way. I must say I sympathise with him. I like to play solo. Or, of course, with rhythm, when it goes the way you want it – like I have it now, in fact. Bands are alright, but you have to know the arrange­ments. The records I made with bands I knew just what I wanted to hear behind me, so I had no bother with those arrangements, and was free to do what I wanted to – and that meant a lot. I hope to do some more with Mitch Miller, band and strings both.

“Oooh”. Earl Hines. Felsted FAJ 7002
Well, Earl’s really somethin’ else, isn’t he! He was one of the innovators, has always had good bands, has always been moving along, has always been good. He’s been working out of ‘Frisco for the past few years, makes that his head­quarters. The last time I heard him he had a fine little band with Pops Foster, and all that lot. Last time I caught him was in Chicago. Pops Foster was with him then, and he came and sat at our table. With no smile on his face at all, he tells my drummer Kelly Martin that he had been with Earl for a long time. “In fact,” he says, “I remember Earl when he was but thirteen – and I was eight.” You should have seen Kelly’s face. Foster still has that great sense of humour and he still plays very good bass. But the whole group sounded great. Earl is tremendously strong, very powerful hands. I never knew he could get with blues just like that – that’s genuine freight train blues, right out of those yards at Pittsburgh. I remember hear­ing him when I was still a kid. He came to Pittsburgh with his band, and that was where Billy Eckstine joined him. Well, the mikes that night they went out, but it made no difference to Earl – he went right on playing and just cut through that whole big band. It was the most powerful playing I ever heard. Now Earl has a different left hand, you know. He can play the Waller style of bass, but he also has his own. He gets away from the beat and breaks up the time, but he comes back on it – right on it, every time. Wonderful! A powerful player – he can be an embarrassment to drummers, can Earl.

“King Porter Stomp”. Wally Rose (Ragtime Classics) Vogue LAG 12242
That was a little before my time, I think. You know I always thought Fletcher Henderson wrote this tune, but it says here Jelly Roll Morton wrote it. That style was before those others you played from New York. I don’t know much about rag­time; it was long before I came on the scene. Sounds rather like what you call Trad (is that right?) over here. Simple, harmonically. I guess you have to be a certain way to play like that; you have to want to play that way.

“Jitterbug Waltz”. Art Tatum. Columbia 33C 9033
Well all I can say is, that was the Pro, and he took it all with him! I was lucky enough to get to hear him on fifteen or sixteen one-nighters, on a thing called Piano Parade. Martha Glaser fixed up the show and we had Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons. Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and myself. That was in 1954. It was, from the old to the new, a whole piano show. I used to stand by that stage every night and I listened and I listened. He encouraged me a whole lot. I used to be scared to go on behind him . . . or even before him for that matter. But like he used to tell me all the time, “You go on and play what you know – forget about me and what I’m playin’. You get on out there and play what you know!” And after a couple of nights that loosened me up and I just played what I knew and it was alright. He had broken up his trio and so Slam came to me with Harold West, and so it was kinda like following in somebody’s footsteps. He played beautifully in that show and did all he could to help. He liked a couple of tunes I wrote and played them for me, and played them so well I just didn’t want to play them anymore. He did so much to them, it was a shame for anyone else to even play them. You are about the fifth or sixth person who has told me that story about when he was dying he is supposed to have said to Oscar Peterson: “You be careful of the little man.” I don’t know if it is true or not. I was not on the road at the time. But all I can say is that anyhow, true or not, it is an honour and a pleasure to try and live up to that rumour.

“Pennies From Heaven”. Lennie Felix (That Cat Felix). Nixa NJT S14
Well, I liked his ideas very much. I didn’t know you had anyone over here who could play that Waller style so well. Of course, as a pianist myself I must say that when you play­ things as fast as that you have got to be real certain of that left hand. It’s difficult to go that pace. The slower version was better. He wasn’t helped much by the recording was he?

“Portrait Of Bert Williams”. Duke Ellington (In A Mellotone). RCA RD 27134
A master of jazz. I don’t get much chance to hear Duke these days, being so much on the road myself. I haven’t heard his most recent band, but he always hires the best men, and that is part of why he sounds so good. Paul Whiteman did the same, you know. A lot of people play Paul down, but he had a wonderful band and like Duke, he always hired the best musicians – Bix, Trumbauer, Teagarden, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and others I can’t remember. Another great band to go with them on that pedestal is Jimmie Lunceford’s – a wonderful big band. Don’t think I am comparing the merits of these three – it is just the status I am talking about – the status of big bands. No one else, of course, has come within miles of Duke as a jazz composer; he is in a class by himself, I like this tune, must try it sometime.