Jazz innovator, pianist, and composer Erroll Garner was a notably distinctive pianist who recorded with Charlie Parker and was one of the most frequently seen jazz musicians on television in the 1950s and 1960s. Although Garner never learned to read music, and taught himself how to play and compose, his unique virtuoso technique attracted many imitators and ardent fans. His technique included a four-beat fixed pulse of blocked chords in the left hand, using wide-spaced voicings similar to swing rhythm-guitar playing, and he often “kicked” the beat in a style similar to a swing drummer. Strong and bouncy left-hand rhythms and beautiful melodies were the trademarks of Garner’s music. He is best known as the composer of “Misty,” now an American standard featured in the 1971 film Play Misty for Me, and his impact as a jazz innovator rivals his legacy as a successful composer. Paul Conley, who wrote and produced a show about Garner for National Public Radio (NPR), described Garner as, “one of the most original, intuitive and exciting pianists to emerge during the modern jazz era.” Garner’s influences include “novelty rag” musicians from the 1920s such as Zez Confrey, in addition to Pittsburgh native Earl Hines, Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green, Fats Waller, and classical recordings. Down Beat’s Ralph J. Gleason wrote in 1995, “It would be hard to pick out 10 jazz pianists today in whose work Garner would not be justified in calling attention to his own influence.”
Garner was born Erroll Louis Garner on June 15th, 1921, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He and his twin brother Ernest were the youngest of six children and were raised in a musical environment. His older brother, Linton, became a noted musical accompanist and pianist. Garner was playing the piano by the age of three, although he never had any formal training throughout his long career. His mother was born in Staunton, Virginia, and graduated from Avery College in Pittsburgh. She had a remarkable contralto voice and sang in a church choir with Garner’s father. Garner’s father had aspired to be a concert singer, but he suffered from asthma. At bedtime, Garner’s mother would play recordings for her children on the Victrola, and the next morning a young Garner would pull himself up on the piano stool and play exactly what he had heard the night before.
A woman named Miss Madge Bowman taught piano to the Garner family, and Garner began taking lessons from her at age six. She gave up on him shortly thereafter when she realized he was playing all of her assignments by ear instead of learning to read notes. Garner’s childhood friend, bassist Wyatt “Bull” Ruther, took piano lessons from Garner’s sister, and Conley reported that Ruther remembered how easily Garner picked up music at a young age. At age seven, 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. His high school band teacher recognized Garner’s innate ability and encouraged him not to take music lessons in order to preserve his unusual talents, and Gamer eventually dropped out of high school to play with Leroy Brown’s orchestra. He learned to play the “novelty rag” styles of musicians such as Zez Confrey from the 1920s by listening to old 78 records, and this particular style was marked by steady left hand chord rhythms supporting loose, right-hand melodic interpretations.
Garner traveled to New York City in 1939 as an accompanist for night club singer Ann Lewis, and soon returned to serve as a substitute for Art Tatum in Tatum’s trio with guitarist “Tiny” Grimes and bassist “Slam” Stewart. Garner stayed on when the trio became the Slam Stewart Trio in 1945. He had developed an extraordinary style that was uniquely his own, and it was around this time in New York City that he met pianists Billy Taylor and George Shearing, and bassist John Levy while playing at Tondelayo’s on 52nd Street. He also played at the Melody Bar on Broadway, at the Rendezvous, and at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack uptown. While playing in Los Angeles, Garner met and recorded Cool Blues with Charlie Parker, which was released in 1947.
Born Erroll Louis Garner on June 15, 1921 (died January 27, 1977), in Pittsburgh, PA; youngest of six children, raised in a musical environment played piano by the age of three, never had any formal training throughout his long career; mother sang in a church choir with Garner’s father, who had aspired to be a concert singer, but suffered from asthma as a child; twin brother named Ernest, older brother Linton became a noted musical pianist and composer.
Played regularly on Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station with a group called The Candy Kids at age seven; played on Allegheny riverboats by age of eleven; high school band teacher recognized Garner’s innate ability and encouraged him not to take music lessons in order to preserve his unusual talents; Garner dropped out of high school to play with Leroy Brown’s orchestra; early influences include “novelty rag” musicians from the 1920s such as Zez Confrey, along with Pittsburgh native Earl Hines, Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green, Fats Waller, and classical recordings; traveled to New York City in 1939 as accompanist for night club singer Ann Lewis; returned to serve as a substitute for Art Tatum in Tatum’s trio with guitarist “Tiny” Grimes and bassist “Slam” Stewart; remained when the trio became the Slam Stewart Trio in 1945; recorded Cool Blues with Charlie Parker, released in 1947. Released “Laura,” 1946; appeared on the Tonight Show; released Cocktail Time, 1947; released The Elf, 1949; released Afternoon of an Elf, 1955; solo recital at the revered Cleveland Music Hall, 1950; became the first and only jazz artist to perform under classical impresario Sol Hurok; released Body and Soul, 1952; released Too Marvelous for Words, 1954; released Misty, 1954; made first live recording, Concert By The Sea, in 1956; released Feeling is Believing, 1956; released Paris Impressions, 1958; scored the music for the film A New Kind of Love, 1963; released That’s My Kick, 1967; single “Misty” featured prominently in the thriller Play Misty for Me, 1971; released Gemini, 1972; released Magician, 1974, released double album Play It Again Erroll, 1974; diagnosed with lung cancer; died at the age of 55, 1977; much of his early music was lost because it had not been written down, but his later works were taken down by arrangers as he composed them.
Garner released his romantic version of “Laura” in 1946, which sold a half million copies. He also captured the media’s attention, and appeared on the Tonight Show, then hosted by Steve Allen, which further catapulted him into the public eye. Cocktail Time was released in 1947, followed by The Elf in 1949 and Afternoon of an Elfin 1955. Garner forged new ground in 1950 with a solo recital at the revered Cleveland Music Hall, a venue for traditionally classical concerts, and later in 1950 gave a concert at New York City’s Town Hall. Garner became the first and only jazz artist to perform under classical impresario Sol Hurok, and recitals and recording sessions gradually replaced his nightclub performances. Body and Soul was released in 1952, and Too Marvelous for Words in 1954. It was his original song “Misty,” however, that sealed his stardom; he released the album Misty in 1954 along with Mambo Moves Garner. Conley wrote, “’Misty’ is still one of the most recognized and requested jazz tunes (in 1999)”. Both Sarah Vaughn and Johnny Mathis enjoyed hits with the song “Misty.”
Garner’s first live recording was Concert By The Sea in 1956, and since it featured almost every nuance of his artistry, the release was the biggest selling jazz artist on the Columbia label. Garner also released Feeling is Believing in 1956, followed by Paris Impressions in 1958. He scored the music for the film A New Kind of Love in 1963, and released That’s My Kick in 1967. His single “Misty” was featured prominently in the thriller Play Misty for Me in 1971. Garner then released Gemini in 1972, followed by Magician in 1974, and then the double album Play It Again Erroll in 1974. Garner was capable of sitting down, unprepared, and composing and recording two albums in the course of one day. He was remarkably prolific, and as the 20th century came to a close, there were still previously unreleased recordings of Garner’s to be brought to the public’s attention.
Garner traveled and toured throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and continued to release material as well. He added Latin rhythms to his repertoire, and sold out concerts around the globe. As he aged, he devoted most of his time to composing scores for movies, Broadway shows, ballets, concerts and recording sessions. He earned over a quarter of a million dollars annually. Failing health forced him to stop touring in 1975 and he was soon diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on January 2, 1977 at the age of 55. Much of his early music was lost because it had not been written down, but his later works were taken down by arrangers as he composed them. When Garner played his own compositions with an orchestra, the orchestra worked from the arranger’s score while Garner played strictly from memory.
Conley wrote, “There exists in Erroll Garner’s playing an emotional infectiousness from which no one with the slightest affinity for music is immune…. Listen to any Erroll Garner recording and you realize, above all else, this man loved to play piano. If you were lucky enough to see him, you also know he loved to share that joy with his audience.” Musician Billy Taylor told Conley, “(Garner) was able to be tremendously popular without compromising his integrity as a musician.” Conley added, “Such is the joy of a genius.”
Cocktail Time, Dial Records, 1947.
The Elf, Savoy, 1949.
Body and Soul, Columbia, 1952.
Too Marvelous for Words, Vol. 3, EmArcy, 1954.
Erroll Garner Collection, Volumes 4 & 5: Solo Time!, EmArcy, 1954.
Mambo Moves Garner, Mercury, 1954.
Misty, Mercury, 1954.
Afternoon of an Elf, Mercury, 1955.
Concert by the Sea, Columbia, 1955.
Feeling is Believing, Columbia, 1956.
Other Voices, Columbia, 1956.
Paris Impressions, Columbia, 1958.
Erroll Garner Plays Gershwin and Kern, Mercury, 1965.
Dancing On The Ceiling, EmArcy, 1965.
Easy to Love, EmArcy, 1965
That’s My Kick, MGM Records, 1967
Gemini, London Records, 1972
Magician, London Records, 1974.
Play It Again Erroll, Columbia, 1974.
Penthouse Serenade, Complete Records, 1993
Serenade to Laura, Complete Records, 1993.
Separate Keyboards: Erroll Garner/Billy Taylor, Complete Records, 1993.
Doran, James M.; Erroll Garner: The Most Happy Piano, Scarecrow Press, 1985.
Down Beat, November 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor