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“What amazed the world most about Garner was that his virtuosity was achieved without any of the customary foundations upon which trained musicians normally build masterpieces. He took no lessons. He read no music. He improvised everything. Presumably he knew nothing about harmony his ear didn't tell him through instinct. He was a natural genius, it was said, as if that was better than being an unnatural genius.”
- John McDonough, 1993
“Garner was self-taught - who could have instructed him in this crazy-quilt style? - and unable to read music. This did little to deter him from a career in music. After all, "nobody can hear you read," he was quick to explain. For his hands, Garner need make no apologies. They were said to span a thirteenth - stunning given his diminutive stature — and he could sign autographs with either the left or the right. Such ambidexterity also showed at the keyboard. ...
In fact, it is difficult to pigeonhole Garner as a member of any school. His style was deeply personal, sometimes cranky, never pedestrian. He fought against the constraints of the instrument: at times making the piano sound like a guitar, with his trademark four-to-a-bar strumming chords, or like a drum, employing offbeat "bombs" in the manner of an Art Blakey, or even like a harp, unleashing Lisztian arpeggios accompanied by a counterpoint of grunts and groans from above. ...
His introductions were pieces in themselves, likely to veer off in any number of directions before honing in on the song in question. His technique was formidable, but so unorthodox that few noticed how difficult his music actually was to perform. His dynamic range was unsurpassed, and nothing delighted him more than moving Irom a whisper to a roar—-then back to a whisper, just as impressive was his sense of time. In Zeno's paradox, Garner could just as well have been the tortoise as mighty Achilles, given how skillfully he could lag several paces behind the beat with a lazy, catch-as-catch-can swing, or charge ahead with all caution thrown to the wind …
And few pianists knew better than Garner how to keep their ten fingers gainfully employed. He is said to be responsible for over one thousand recordings on around seventy labels. Given this massive discography, Garner's consistency, enthusiasm, and freshness of approach are especially impressive ...”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz
I can never get enough of the music of pianist Erroll Garner, or “takes” [explanations] on his music, especially when these annotations are written by someone the likes of the esteemed Jazz critic and author John McDonough as is the case with the following piece.
John’s essay forms the insert notes to Erroll Garner Verve Jazz Masters 7 [314 518 197-2], 15 tracks of solo piano and bass-drums-conga recordings that were recorded in 1954 and 1955 and issued on CD in 1994.
Of all the pieces on Erroll Garner that I’ve read - and believe me when I tell you that I’ve read many - John’s piece on what makes Erroll Garner distinctive is one of the most informed and insightful ever written.
“When Erroll Garner died early in 1977 at the age of 53, the British music magazine Jazz Journal noted what Art Tatum once had told Oscar Peterson. Tatum no doubt expected Peterson to succeed him as the reigning virtuoso of jazz piano. But after hearing Garner one night during a New York visit, according to the magazine, the Old Lion took his cub aside and warned him: "Beware of the little man." I don't know, of course, if that story is true. It does have the faint aroma of legend about it. But if it isn't true, it ought to be.
In the postwar jazz world, as the big bands faded and bebop invited all but the hep to get lost, four young pianists emerged who would prove capable of drawing relatively large audiences to mainstream jazz through the lean years ahead. Peterson was one. Dave Brubeck and George Shearing were two others. But the first to make the big breakthrough was unquestionably Erroll Garner, "the little man". By the late Fifties any one of these men probably commanded a larger general audience and concert fee than Red Garland, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, and pre-Columbian Monk put together.
What they had, in a word, was a very conspicuous virtuosity. Each could do things on the piano that seemed dazzlingly impossible. Whether the listener was a jazz fan or not was unimportant. People came to witness and wonder at the sheer skill they wielded. Many, I suspect, admired them more as athletes than musicians. And to be sure, their mastery of the keyboard was no less a feat of athletics than Michael Jordan's rule of the basketball court. Sheer skill at the highest level is indeed a thing of beauty.
And Erroll Garner had an immense skill. Tatum's warning was not ill-considered. But others had skill, too. What amazed the world most about Garner was that his virtuosity was achieved without any of the customary foundations upon which trained musicians normally build masterpieces. He took no lessons. He read no music. He improvised everything. Presumably he knew nothing about harmony his ear didn't tell him through instinct. He was a natural genius, it was said, as if that was better than being an unnatural genius. There was hardly an album note or a magazine profile written about him that did not remind us of this. Thus Garner came to personify one of the great popular myths pervading jazz: that notion that holds all formal training and musical literacy to be corrupting. Garner was the ultimate musical original. Yet surely the most polished.
He came upon his polish in Pittsburgh, where he was born in June 1923. One of his classmates. Dodo Marmarosa, also would become a noted if more conventional musician. In his teens Garner turned pro working as a soloist in clubs and with various regional bands. In an interview he once recalled playing the William Penn Hotel with the Baron Elliott (Garner called him incorrectly, "the Blue baron"), a white "sweet" band of the Thirties with a young Billy May then as lead trumpet. In an interview May recently said, "all of the musicians in Pittsburgh would go hear him in little joints around Pittsburgh. He had a children's piano book with real big notes. I remember.
And after playing some fantastic solo in a set, he'd come off the stand with this book and ask us what the names of the lines and the spaces were." He took his leave of Pittsburgh in 1944. went to New York, and never looked back. He quickly made his mark, first subbing for Art Tatum. then working with bassist Slam Stewart. The first down beat issue of 1945 called Garner "sensational". When he finally formed his own trio and began recording prolifically, he found his niche for life playing variations on the better pop standards and adding to that repertoire with original pieces. One such original, "Misty", became an American popular standard itself when Johnny Burke added words and Johnny Mathis sang them in 1959.
The word formula is not often looked upon with favor in jazz commentary. Neither, I suppose, is the word device. But Garner's formula and devices were unmistakably his, and therefore, honorable emblems of his uniqueness. All important jazz musicians inevitably have certain fixed characteristics that govern their approach to performing. Improvisation to the musician is what handwriting is to the rest of us — always different, yet always the same. The musician who takes pride in being free of any formulas is almost certainly, if not a forger, more a craftsman than an artist.
Garner's style was extremely sophisticated but accessible; original, yet seemingly simple — he was an innovator. Among the boldest of Garner's trademarks was his penchant for orderly rubato and his use of chunky, locked-hands chords often full of unexpected dissonances. He would work these and other signature marks into a structural pattern that became unquestionably formulaic over the years. Heaping often convoluted never predictable introductions with barely a hint of what was to come created a kind of perverse suspense (Smooth One). Then he would pop the tension and drop softly into a first chorus of light-handed thirds or fifths, spurred by his propeller of a left hand (7/11 Jump). First chorus done, he might fly into a break followed by a gentle but fiercely swinging improvisation of single eighth notes that would start softly and begin to build (I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter). He had a grasp of pacing equal to that of a dramatist and knew how to build toward a climax. The pattern is equally apparent at more moderate tempos, as in "Don't Be That Way" and I've Got the World on a String.
The element of surprise was always there, however, and it was informed by a depth of knowledge that knew the difference between what was appropriate and what was merely cute. Note how he interpolates "Seven Come Eleven" so fittingly into Don't Be That Way, both pieces associated with Benny Goodman. The sheer size, scope, and heft of his improvisations achieved a special gee whiz quality in light of his lack of credentials.
Another thing that astounded (and thoroughly pleased) cost-conscious producers was his monumental productivity. The two sessions represented here are cases in point. Garner spun out twenty four perfect trio pieces on July 27, 1954. And the following March he logged another twenty solo takes in one session. In these days when some groups routinely take a year to lay down an album's worth of material, performers such as Garner remind us that art and efficiency can be allies.
I don’t know if these Ruthian feats stand in any record books. (Actually, Tatum once recorded thirty five issued takes in a single session.) But stamina, while admirable, is not what Garner's greatness is made of. The point is that Garner had the remarkable power to enter each performance with a vision of what he wanted to do and was prepared to stand and deliver without pretense or self doubt. He also had in the piano a uniquely self-sufficient tool of expression that bestowed upon its masters an unfettered sovereignty in the studio. Vision, autonomy, and technique combined in Garner as in few others.
There are still many Garners to choose from. He could be an unrepentant balladeer one moment (Misty) and a real burner another. This anthology focuses on the jazz man. with a brief but ineluctable bow to the gilded romanticism of "Misty". Consider the driving (All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings. It is direct and unencumbered in its swing and lean and unsentimental in its approach to the tune. His blues were more sophisticated than earthy. He even managed to incorporate a few nearly atonal bars in Part-time Blues.
So here is Erroll Garner in the middle Fifties, at the peak of his form, as he had broken through to a mass audience — unusual for a jazz musician with any integrity. And Garner had integrity.”
John McDonough June 1993
John McDonough writes for down beat and The Wall Street Journal.