In a 1959 New York Times profile of Erroll Garner by John S. Wilson, he notes that Garner never made any kind of plan until the last minute, never used a recipe to cook and taught himself to play golf.
Therefore, it is not surprising that while Garner couldn’t read or write music, he composed “Misty”, one of the greatest jazz ballads of all time. Or that he played thousands of songs entirely by ear, and never the same way twice, the epitome of great jazz improvisation and interpretation. “Erroll never said what he was going to play or what key, just started playing the intro,” said bassist Ernest McCarty, who played with Garner in the early 1970’s. “He was unpredictable and I liked that.”
On June 15, 1921 Garner was born in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pa. Garner followed his older brother Linton, playing piano by three and quickly becoming accomplished at picking up tunes. At six he began taking lessons. Just a year later, Garner began to play regularly on Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station with a group called The Candy Kids, and by the age of eleven he was playing on Allegheny riverboats.
Listening to early ragtime style 78 records, Garner developed his innovative style illustrated by steady left hand guitar style chord rhythms supporting loose, right-hand melodic interpretations and harmonic invention, a bit of Scott Joplin meeting Liberace, with a heaping dose of delight. “Humor is intrinsic to Garner’s nature and is a companion to his feeling for life, to the joy and sensuality of his playing,” said the late comedian and pianist Dudley Moore in a 1988 tribute.
In 1939 Garner traveled to New York City as an accompanist for night club singer Ann Lewis, and subbed in for Art Tatum in Tatum’s trio with guitarist “Tiny” Grimes and bassist “Slam” Stewart. He played at the Melody Bar, Rendezvous, Three Deuces and at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. In 1947, while playing in Los Angeles in his own trio of Red Callendar and Doc Wes, Garner met and recorded the hit Cool Blues with legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker. Garner continued his success as a prolific composer and recording artist, releasing his romantic version of “Laura” in 1946, which sold a half million copies, followed by the recordings Cocktail Time in 1947 and The Elf in 1949.
An appearance on the Tonight Show, then hosted by fellow jazz pianist and composer Steve Allen, led to many more television requests. From the 1950’s-1970’s Garner appeared, often multiple times, on the Jackie Gleason show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, the Ed Sullivan show, the Garry Moore show, London Palladium show, the Andy Williams show, the Joey Bishop show, the Flip Wilson show, the Pearl Bailey show, the Mike Douglas show, the David Frost show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
By the early 1950’s Garner was one of the country’s most popular entertainers. Fortuitously, at this time he met Martha Glaser, who had originally planned to pursue a career in public affairs and journalism. However, following the 1943 Detroit riots, she became increasingly active in supporting human rights, taking a central role in the formation the Entertainment Committee to combat race hatred. The first Jewish American woman to be hired by the city of Chicago for the Human Rights commission, she organized jazz concerts, first working with Norman Granz, another tireless supporter or civil rights; and subsequently for agent and entrepreneur Joe Glaser, who managed Louis Armstrong. In 1948 Glaser created her own music publicity and management company.
In an era where musicians were often taken advantage of by their managers and where women were not accepted beyond traditional professions of secretary, teaching or nursing, Garner and Glaser formed a powerful and loyal duo. In 1950 they founded their own publishing company, Octave Music, thereby ensuring greater royalties and control over Garner’s career. In the 1960’s Octave sued Columbia (and won) for unauthorized release of recorded material, a landmark case that had a lasting impact on the music industry. Their partnership lasted until Garner’s death in 1977. Glaser continued to manage Garner’s catalogue and licensing until her passing in 2014, most notably taking documentarian Ken Burns to task for his omission of Garner from his “Jazz” series.
In 1950 Garner played a historic solo recital at the revered Cleveland Music Hall, a venue for traditionally classical concerts, and later that year gave a concert at New York City’s Town Hall. In 1958 Garner became the first and only jazz artist to perform under classical impresario Sol Hurok (Hurok did book Benny Goodman in Carnegie Hall before World War II), and recitals and recording sessions gradually replaced his club performances. Body and Soul was released in 1952, and Too Marvelous for Words in 1954. Frequently seen playing on TV in the 1950’s-1960’s,
Garner’s unique style drew both fans and imitators. Fellow Pittsburgh native Art Blakey originally took up the piano until Garner outclassed him one night and the owner of the club suggested Blakey try the drums, which he did.
While he wrote more than 200 songs original compositions and recorded numerous albums, Garner is best known for one composition, “Misty”, and one album, Concert By The Sea, both of which today are considered music classics.
Misty - In 1954 Garner recorded “Misty” as a 32-bar instrumental on the album “Contrasts,” which reached #30 on the pop charts. However, Glaser and Garner hounded several Tin Pan Alley lyricists to write lyrics and Johnny Burke responded. In 1959 Johnny Mathis recorded it on his album “Heavenly,” reaching #12 on the US Pop Singles chart, selling 2.5 million US sales and becoming one of his signature songs.
The lush ballad pervaded popular culture. Throughout most of the 1960’s, fans started their day to “Misty” used as the Today Show theme. In 1971, it was the centerpiece of jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood’s film “Play Misty For Me,” paying $25,000 to license the song. In his first film as a director, Eastwood starred as a late-night disk jockey who has a fling with one of his listeners. Spurned, she stalks him by calling in requests every night, saying “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” It has been featured in numerous television shows (Cheers, Saturday Night Live, Magnum PI, The Muppet Show) and films, (Oscar nominated film Silver Linings Playbook).
“Misty” has been covered many times, most notably by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Andy Williams, Julie London and Frank Sinatra. In 1962 Stan Kenton recorded it on his LP Adventures In Jazz. Ray Stevens recorded a country version, which rose to #3 on the US Billboard Hot Country Singles and in 1975 won a Grammy for his country arrangement of the song. In 1991 Garner’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame; and in 2002 Mathis’ vocal version was also inducted.
In 2000, ASCAP ranked “Misty” as the twelfth most popular song of the 20th century. Since 1954 no other song published has been recorded by more jazz artists except for Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll.”
Concert By The Sea - On September 19, 1955 Garner’s trio was hired to play in a converted church at the Fort Ord military base in Carmel, California, by disk jockey Jimmy Lyons, with no plans to make a recording. Glaser saw backstage that, per Will Friedman’s 2009 Wall Street Journal article, jazz fan Will Thornbury brought a tape recorder to capture the event for himself and fellow servicemen. She told him “I’ll give you copies of every record Erroll ever made, but I can’t let you keep that tape.”
Glaser took the tape and brought it back to New York, where she played it for George Avakian, the head of Columbia Records jazz division. One of Columbia Records best-selling albums of the decade, it featured “I’ll Remember April,” “Teach Me Tonight,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Mambo Carmel-by-the-sea.”
Although the acoustics were less than perfect (it’s hard to hear bassist Eddie Cochran and drummer Denzil Best) and the piano slightly out of tune, it captured the essence of Garner’s improvisation, becoming the #1 record in Garner’s career and one of the most popular jazz albums of all time. Friedman writes “It’s not hard to hear why: from the first notes onward, Garner plays like a man inspired – on fire, even. He always played with a combination of wit, imagination, amazing technical skill and sheer joy far beyond nearly all of his fellow pianists, but on this particular night he reached a level exceeding his usual Olympian standard.”
In September 2015 Octave Music and SONY Legacy released a new and updated version of Concert by The Sea. This 3-CD box set contains the complete live concert recording including 11 previously unreleased tracks, the original edited Columbia release from 1956 (digitally restored and remastered at The Magic Shop, NYC using the Plangent Process) and bonus material including announcer Jimmy Lyons and interviews with the Erroll Garner trio: Denzil DaCosta Best, Eddie Calhoun, and Garner himself, recorded directly after the concert.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s Garner continued to record (Feeling Is Believing, Other Voices, Paris Impressions) and added film composing to his repertoire. In 1963 Garner scored A New Kind Of Love starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He released Erroll Garner Plays Gershwin and Kern, Dancing on the Ceiling and Easy to Love. In 1968, he appeared on Danish TV with bassist Ike Isaacs, drummer Jimmie Smith and bongo player Jose Mangual for taped appearance that was made into the documentary Erroll Garner in Copenhagen.
In the 1970’s Garner continued to tour internationally and record albums. Tragically, while still at the prime of his career, Garner was diagnosed with lung cancer. On January 2, 1977, he passed away at just fifty-three, buried at the Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, leaving behind a rich legacy of great music that is still enjoyed today. For example, from October 1, 1976-September 30, 1985, Misty was one of ASCAP’s 16 most performed standards, listed with “White Christmas”, “Over the Rainbow”, “As Time Goes By” And “The Way We Were.”
In 1995 Garner was chosen as a subject for the US Post Office stamp series, along with fellow jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Eubie Blake, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Jelly Roll Morton, again demonstrating Garner’s place in jazz history.
The late trumpeter Clark Terry summed it up simply, “The man was complete. He could do it all.”
(Sources: NY Times, errollgarner.com, Pittsburgh Gazette, allmusic.com, Wall Street Journal)