Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner performs Col Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You, circa 1960:

Erroll Louis Garner (1923-1977) was a 5’2” miracle: a virtuoso jazz pianist whose performances had the nuanced textures of big band charts; whose sheer, overpowering and contagious joy could not help but overwhelm listeners; who created a style of playing that was and remains his and his alone.

The official Erroll Garner website contains the following, rather breathless though entirely accurate paragraph:

Erroll Louis Garner
Erroll Louis Garner

“Garner released music on over 40 labels, received multiple Grammy nominations, and recorded one of the greatest selling jazz albums of all time, Concert By The Sea. His published catalog contains nearly 200 compositions including Misty, which was named #15 on ASCAP’s list of the top songs of the 20th century. He scored for ballet, film, television, and orchestra. One of the most televised Jazz artists of his era, Garner appeared on TV shows all over the world: Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and many others [including the Jackie Gleason show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, 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, and the David Frost show!] His prolific career began on Allegheny riverboats and spanned from the clubs of 52nd street to the top concert halls of the world.”

Not bad for an entirely self-taught pianist who never learned how to either read or write music. (He’d work out his songs and scores on the piano, tape record them, after which someone else would transcribe/notate them. In the case of his scores, Garner would then verbally indicate what parts should be played by what instruments.) 

Erroll Garner didn’t just “play piano by ear”; as an adult, he seemed to take extraordinary pleasure in playing life by ear as well. In 1959, the music critic John S. Wilson (1913-2002) published a profile of Garner in the New York Times. During the course of that profile, Wilson observed that Garner, who never married, lived his life with enviable spontaneity: he rarely made any sort of personal plans until the last minute; he never used a recipe to cook; and he managed to teach himself to play golf (as impressive, I think, as teaching yourself to play piano!).

Garner had, literally, thousands of songs in his ear and in his hands, and he never played a song quite the same way, or even necessarily in the same key: spontaneity was the name of his musical game. Bassist Ernest McCarty, who played with Garner in the early 1970s, told an interviewer: 

“Erroll never said what he was going to play or what key, just started playing the intro. He was unpredictable.”

Unpredictable; yes. That will certainly keep your sidemen on their toes!

Garner was born on June 15, 1921 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Imitating his older brother Linton, Erroll began playing piano at three and quickly becoming adept at picking up tunes by ear. At the age of seven he began to play regularly on Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station with a group called The Candy Kids, and by eleven he was playing on riverboats that plied the Allegheny River.

In 1939 Garner the 18-year-old Erroll Garner went to New York – where, FYI, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere – and his career was launched. 

Concert By The Sea
Concert by the Sea: original album cover

Garner’s most famous record – Concert By The Sea – was recorded in concert on September 19, 1955 in the theater of the Sunset School (now the Sunset Arts Center) in the California beachfront town of Carmel (a.k.a. “Carmel-By-The-Sea”), roughly 120 miles south of where I am presently writing in Oakland. My parents owned this record, and it was the first jazz album I ever heard. No brag, just fact: I can sing every note of this album to this day.

A good portion of the audience at this concert in Carmel were servicemen bused in from nearby Fort Ord. With the soldiers in mind, a recording engineer named Will Thornbury recorded the concert for the Armed Forces Radio Network. While the acoustics might have been bad and the piano slightly out of tune, the tape ended up in the hands of George Avakian, the head of the jazz division of Columbia Records. Bad acoustics or not, Avakian decided to release 11 cuts from the concert, and so was born one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

I would be featuring Concert by the Sea as a Dr. Bob Prescribes album except for the fact that it doesn’t need my help; it would be like featuring Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as “a work you should all know and love!” To see which Erroll Garner I AM prescribing, continue reading on Patreon!

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