By February 14, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Individuality: a case for Erroll Garner, part 1.

Erroll Garner in the 1950's.

Erroll Garner in the 1950’s.

As we’ve lamented here ad nauseum, individuality has become a lost art in jazz and other improvisational music. We talked earlier about tenor sax and trumpet players in that narrow temporal window between the demise of Swing and the birth of modern jazz, and how an immediately recognizable, unique style seemed to be an essential requirement for consideration as an accomplished non-classical player. We posited reasons for why this changed to the current staus quo, where technical prowess trumps personality. You’re welcome to peruse our musings in earlier posts to see what our conclusions were. Piano players, of course, were no exception, and being reminded the other day of Erroll Garner’s role in that era prompted us extoll his virtues here.

While surfing through the wasteland that is our overpriced cable system, we happened uponĀ Starz showing Atticus Brady’s 2012 documentary on Garner, “No One Can Hear You Read.” Mostly a series of interviews with Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Garner biographer Jim Doran, Ahmad Jamal and Dick Hyman, it is interspersed with enough performance clips and interviews with Garner himself to avoid being the worst kind of Ken Burns-style talkfest. One is immediately struck, of course, by the utter joy and singularity of Garner’s playing, but the old interview clips also give a sense of what a charming, articulate man he was. All in all, a fairly good jazz film, and a nice introduction to the man and his music. Here’s a link to it at For us, having been introduced to Garner 40 years ago, it was simply a reminder to reconnect with one of the truly unique artists that used to define jazz.

Garner, like Thelonious Monk and just a few others like him, is that oddity in the arts: a brilliant practitioner who has almost no place in any evolutionary discussion of its history. In other words, an artist so utterly unique and personal that he really didn’t influence anyone else, despite creating a brilliant body of work. Both technically and creatively, Garner operated at a high level, but his odd developmental path and his relative commercial success have often made critics and historians take him less than seriously as one of the great figures in jazz. Our view couldn’t be more at odds with theirs, and we hope that the uninitiated will explore Garner’s music with an open mind.

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1920’s, Garner was something of a child prodigy, encouraged to play piano from an early age, but never grasping theory, harmony and notation in any real way. He was simply allowed to play. And play. And play. So much so that by his teenage years, he was working professionally, but with a completely self-taught technique and an uncanny ear for learning new material and for improvisation. By the early days of World War II, Garner was among the dozens of great, young players who had flocked to that incubator for nascent modern jazz, New York City’s 52nd Street. First as a solo pianist, and later with a trio, Garner wowed audiences and fellow pianists alike with odd but dazzling chops.

He made a handful of records in full band contexts, most notably a session with Charlie Parker that yielded the classic “Cool Blues”, but his very rubato sense of tempo and his staccato way with swing rhythms typically clashed with soloists and fellow accompanists alike. Only the most devoted, attentive drummers and bassists could work with Garner, and then only after hearing him play for long hours to glean every nuance, quirk and oddity that made up his bag of sonic tricks. After the late 1940’s, Garner would never work with more than a bassist and a drummer, and he would just as often perform as a solo pianist. Another unique aspect to his improvisation, and one that confounded even those players who had worked with him for years, was his penchant for opening almost every song with a long, convoluted intro of his own device. Completely improvised, and completely different at every performance, these intros were so oblique and had such vague, dissonant references to the song being introduced that his band was typically as clueless as the audience as to what was about to be played. In the video above, his bassist actually throws out his arms in bewilderment during the intro to “Honeysuckle Rose” (continued in part 2).

Posted in: Iconoclasts, Jazz, Videos

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