We present the following wonderful profile as our Introduction to Erroll Garner.
Erroll Garner: The Joy of Genius
by Paul Conley
This June marks the 75th birthday anniversary of Erroll Garner, one of the jazz world's most original contributors. Perhaps best remembered as the composer of "Misty," the self taught pianist actually composed hundreds of songs. As a performer, he was quite simply beyond compare. From his ornate, and sometimes even avant garde introductions to songs, to the steady, guitar-like accompaniment of his left hand, Erroll Garner was unlike any of the pianists who had come before him, or since. And yet, what has endeared him most to millions of music lovers around the world is not just his amazing technique or knack for creating beautiful melodies, but his absolute rapture in making music. 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. As a result, Erroll Garner became one of the most popular pianists of all time. Such was not the case with many of his modem jazz colleagues, however. Consider Bud Powell, perhaps the most influential of all bebop pianists, whose pioneering approach attracted legions of fans within the jazz community but who alienated those casual listeners still struggling with the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Erroll Garner, on the other hand, was a favorite among jazz musicians, jazz fans and popular audiences alike. His style was far from "bebop," but he was a thoroughly modem player, whose explorations of melody, harmony and rhythm were totally unique. Still, he never lost that personal connection with the audience. He was one of those rare individuals capable of fusing unparalleled artistry with pure and honest emotion. Erroll Gamer's music was the embodiment of both joy and genius.
As the original host of "The Tonight Show" and of his own syndicated program, Steve Allen introduced television audiences to dozens of jazz greats. "There was always a rare kind of excitement when Erroll Garner played," explains Allen. "The audience first of all could be observed to be smiling, which they would not always do if say listening to Oscar Peterson. They might be open-mouthed in awe listening to Oscar, but the smiling thing would be unlikely to happen. But with Erroll there would be this happy look on the audience's faces and then an actual cheer when he finished. And sometimes cheers would happen during the performance, like at an athletic contest when somebody sinks a long basket to win the game. It was almost like that kind of outburst when the man would perform."
"He was probably the most exciting uptempo pianist of them all," according to record producer George Avakian, who oversaw the release of much of Garner's work for Columbia in the 1950's, including the best-selling album Concert By The Sea. "He had what I used to call the 'Garner Rock.' He'd take a tune like "Girl Of My Dreams I Love You" and the way he played it... man, you were dancing in your seat before you could even get up to dance!"
Whether he was playing an uptempo number or a romantic ballad, Erroll Garner always connected with his audiences on an emotional level. Fellow pianist Billy Taylor was a close friend to Garner and eventually replaced him in the Slam Stewart Trio during the late 1940's, once Erroll struck out on his own. He offers this explanation of the simpatico shared between Garner and listener. "He was always cognizant of the audience, and he always said the audience was the fourth member of his trio. He reached out to them and that was his barometer." And how did Garner avoid losing the listener during his mysterious and sometimes lengthy introductions to songs? "In essence he would say, 'I'm going to do something a little bit complicated, but I want you to get it.' And they did !"
Once the introductory riddle was solved by the first few notes of a familiar tune, Garner never strayed very far from the original melody. "Erroll was so melodic he would appeal to anybody," according to jazz writer and educator Dan Morgenstern. "When he became a concert pianist, what was so remarkable about Erroll was that without any showbiz trimmings or anything he could just sit down at that piano in front of thousands of people and completely enrapture them. He would draw them in just like he would have in a little club." Adds Billy Taylor, "The things that he did that really communicated with the audience were melodic. They could hear him playing "Penthouse Serenade" or some other popular tune, they could recognize the melody and, at the same time, they could also recognize the fact that he was taking liberties with the melody in the same way that Louis Armstrong and others did. But the melody was always there." That wasn't neccesarily the case with Gamer's bebop contemporaries, whose improvisations rarely hinted at a song's original line.
Even though Erroll Garner remained loyal to the melody, he was no less on the "cutting edge" than were the beboppers. In fact, he was as highly regarded for his harmonic and rhythmic explorations by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (with whom he also played and recorded), as he was by the older generation of players like Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge, who loved his melodic approach. Garner was able to put it all together-- artistic innovation and emotional directness -- in such a way that resonated with every kind of audience. "Even people who had no interest in jazz, who would have preferred to listen to rock or the classics, loved to watch Erroll Garner perform. And that is rare," explains Steve Allen.
"Sanctified" is how Dizzy Gillespie once described Erroll Garner. "He had an aura there's no question about it," says George Avakian. "A cheerful expression all the time, and it was no put on. He was really like a pixie or an elf. When you split with Erroll at the end of an evening you left with a happy smile and a good feeling. No worries at all. Off to bed feeling great. That's what Erroll did for people."
Some have argued there is a certain amount of soul lacking in today's jazz, that record companies in their rush to create the next "young lion" are placing too much emphasis on marketing and hype and not enough on the importance of having an original voice with emotional integrity. Others have suggested the "formalization'' of jazz education is somehow diluting the very foundation upon which jazz was built, that originality and emotion have taken a back seat to the importance of flawless technique. Whether or not this is true, anyone remotely connected with jazz -- be it in business, education or as a performer -- would do well to revisit the artistry of Erroll Garner. One of the lessons he left for future generations of aspiring musicians is the fact that art and entertainment can successfully coexist. In the words of Billy Taylor, "He was able to be tremendously popular without compromising his integrity as a musician." Such is the joy of a genius.
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