Friday, December 27, 2019

Red Garland: Graceful and Bluesy

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It seemed to be over so fast for William “Red” Garland.

One minute he’s making all those great Prestige and Columbia records as the pianist with the classic Miles Davis quintet that also featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones, but after 1959, he seemed somehow to become relegated to total obscurity.

Bill Evans and then Wynton Kelly replaced him with Miles and, with the advent of the 1960’s, Jazz clubs began to close calling for great adjustments by those who continued to work in the music.

Red was not one of the Jazz musicians who successfully navigated the sea of changes that swept over the Jazz World, returning instead to Dallas and choosing to live in his father’s home in a state of virtual retirement.

The recordings that “Red” made with Miles and under his own name for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records during his brief period of ascendancy were my first introduction to what some referred to as an “East Coast Jazz rhythm section.”

Red along with Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones opened a whole new world for me of keeping time and playing behind horns in a style that was on top of the beat, hard driving and full of intensity.

The epitome of what Red, Paul and “Philly” Joe got going as a rhythm section was contained on their trio performance of Billy Boy on the Miles Davis Milestones LP. I practiced to it so often that I learned to play every accent, fill and solo that Philly Joe Jones plays on this track from memory.

Before he faded from the Jazz scene, Red also made a series of recordings for Prestige as a leader and as a sideman for John Coltrane that included, in addition to Chambers and Jones, bassists George Joyner, Sam Jones, Peck Morrison and Wendell Marshall, as well as, drummers Art Taylor, Specs Wright, Charlie Persip, Frank Gant and Larry Ridley.

But whether he was out front or just on the date, and irrespective of who joined him in the rhythm section, the “feel” and sound of Red’s approach to the piano remained essentially the same.

“Graceful yet unaffectedly bluesy, Red Garland's manner was flex­ible enough to accommodate the contrasting styles of both Miles Davis and John Coltrane in the Davis quintet of the mid-1950s. His many records as a leader, beginning at about the same period, display exactly the same qualities. His confessed influences of Tatum, Powell and Nat Cole seem less obvious than his debts to Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal, whose hit recording of Billy Boy from the early 1950’s seems to sum up everything that Garland would later go on to explore.

All of the listed trio sessions feature the same virtues: deftly fin­gered right-hand runs over bouncy rhythms, coupled with block-chord phrasing which colored melodies in such a way that Gar­land saw no need to depart from them. Medium-up-tempo treatments alternate with stately ballads, and Chambers and Tay­lor are unfailingly swinging, if often constrained, partners. The later sessions feature a slightly greater empathy, but we find it very hard to choose a favorite among these records.” [Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed., p. 548].

In this excerpt from his interview with Len Lyons, “Red” described how it all began for him:

“When did you begin playing piano?

I didn't begin on piano. In fact, I never played the piano until I was in the army. You couldn't call me a child prodigy. I started on clarinet because my father wanted me to. It was his idea. He loved Benny Goodman, so he wanted me to play the clarinet. The truth is I've always wanted to play trumpet. At least I did then. At the dances we used to go to as kids, the brass section seemed to have the most fun. They'd sit there with the trumpets across their laps, clapping to the music.

I took up the piano when I ran across Lee Barnes, a pianist in the army band. He started teaching me how to play, and I soon grew to love it. He inspired me. Nobody had to tell me to practice because I was playing piano all day. Lee even wrote out exercises for me. When I left the army, I bought an exercise book by Theodore Presser, and that was a great help to me.

In 1945 I played my first gig on piano. It was with a tenor player, Bill Blocker, who had a quartet in Fort Worth, Texas. We played mostly in the dance halls. During those years I was listening to Count Basie. He was my first favorite. He didn't have a lot of technique, but I thought he was very tasty. I started to copy him for a while. Then I began to copy Nat "King" Cole, who was more of a pianist than most people know. He was tasty, too, and he didn't have a bad technique. Then [trumpeter Oran] Hot Lips Page came to town with his band. We used to call him just Lips. Anyway, his piano player got fired while the band was down in Texas. I think it might have been because of drunkenness. Then Buster Smith, the alto saxophonist, came to my house at four o'clock in the morning to tell me to hurry and get dressed because Lips wanted me to go with him. I told him, no, I wasn't ready. I wasn't good enough yet. But they talked me into it anyway, and we toured all the way across the country into New York City.

When I got to New York, I ran into the tenor player Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, and I asked him where all the good piano players were. He told me Bud Powell was about the baddest cat in town. ‘Who's Bud Powell?’ I asked him. ‘Don't worry, you're going to find out,’ he told me. Well, one night I was working at Minton's with Max Roach, and I looked over toward the door, and in walked Bud. I could hardly play because of everything I had heard about him. I froze. Bud came over and started forcing me off the bench. ‘Let me play,’ he kept saying to me. ‘Let me play.’ Max was yelling to me, ‘No! Get him away. Keep him away from the piano.’ Max was afraid he was crazy or something and was going to ruin the gig. I got up anyway. I figured if Bud wanted to play that bad, I wasn't going to stand in his way. Well, he sat down at the piano and scared me to death-he played so much piano! I told Max, ‘I quit! Give him the job!"’See, Bud took my cool.

But a few days later I went over to Bud's house, and he showed me some things. In fact, I came back day after day to learn from him, and we became buddies. He was really friendly to me and the greatest influence on me of any pianist, except for Art Tatum. I still don't believe Art Tatum was real.

There was a club named Luckey's [Rendezvous], owned by Luckey Rob­erts, and it was just for piano players - no bass or drums allowed. There's where we'd separate the men from the boys, when you can't lean on the bass or drums. Art Tatum was a frequent visitor there, and I'd stand over his shoulder to watch what he was doing. One night he stood behind me as I was playing. ‘You're forcing,’ he told me. ‘You're forcing. Don't play the piano. Let the piano play itself.’ I was tight, so he gave me that piece of advice, and I've always remembered it. He gave me some arpeggios to work on, too, and I'm still working on them.

Then I was working in a small club in Boston with Coleman Hawkins when Miles [Davis] came in to hear me. He told me during the intermission that he wanted to get a group together with me on piano, Philly Joe, Curly Russell on bass, and Sonny Rollins on tenor. Two weeks later I heard Sonny couldn't get released from his rehabilitation program, so I left town for Phila­delphia. A while later I got a telegram from Miles asking me if I knew anyone in Philadelphia who could play tenor sax. I told him I knew a cat named John Coltrane, and Miles asked me, ‘Can he play?’ and I told him, ‘Sure he can.’ John and I met Miles in Baltimore. Meanwhile, Miles had found a kid out of Detroit, named Paul Chambers, and he played bass for us. Philly Joe was still on drums. We had never played together until the night of our first gig, so we got together about five in the afternoon and jammed. From the opening tune we clicked. We just clicked right away, and that was that. We stayed together from '55 to January 1959. I did a few trio gigs by myself and then went home, like I told you.” [The Great Jazz Pianists Speaking of Their Lives and Music, pp. 146-147].


  1. the "deftly fingered runs" were done with his RIGHT hand.

  2. I knew Red Garland late in his life. I once asked him what he would like to record that he hadn't done, and he replied that he wanted to record either with strings or with a big band. Obviously, he never got the opportunity.

    Red also told me that he preferred to play in the style of Bud Powell, but that Miles Davis wanted the block chords.

    Red liked Miles Davis, and he also liked Philly Joe Jones. Red was a genial guy.

    I regret that I never talked with Red about his boxing background. I've attempted to find information about his bouts, to no avail. Does anyone know if he used a different name in his ring career?


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