Erroll Garner is one of the most famous jazz composers and pianist of his time. He was a composer who never had any formal music education, learned by listening rather than reading music. Garner started with his early professional career at the age of eleven, when he began to play piano on Allegheny riverboats. Garner then learned to play the ‘novelty rag’ styles of musicians through listening to old 78 records that had incorporated rag chords in the left hand while the right hand played melodic interpretations.
Garner was greatly influenced by novelty rag, though his other influences included musicians such as Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Freddie Green, as well as a number of classical recordings. Garner was an idiosyncratic pianist who worked with many jazz masters, including Charlie Parker. Some of his famous compositions included Laura,Misty, The Elf, Cocktail Time and Afternoon of an Elfin.
Concert by the Sea was Garner’s first live recording in 1956 and became the biggest selling album, making Garner the biggest selling jazz artist on the Columbia label. For the rest of his life, Garner worked as the leader of his trio and gave solo performances on his tours. He toured the entire US throughout the 50’s, 60’s and the early 70’s. During his professional career, he also visited the UK and Europe and appeared on UK television. Even though Garner was truly his own teacher, he never tried to learn to read music. Despite this, his success is based on producing and composing multiple styles of jazz and developing unique harmonic progressions, tantalizing the audience with his chord structures. The uniqueness in his compositions was so consistent that few other musicians could imitate his sound. His musical continued after his death, revitalized and expanded by Keith Jarrett.
Erroll Louis Garner was born on the 15th of June, 1921. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was raised with a musical background along with his twin brother Ernest and four other siblings. Linton, his eldest brother, also became a well known pianist and musical accompanist.
Garner began learning piano at the age of three, though he never received any formal education throughout his whole career. Garner’s mother had a remarkable contralto voice and she used to sing in the church choir with Garner’s father. Garner’s father has aspirations to become a concert singer, but couldn’t do so because he had asthma problems. At bedtime, Garner’s mother used to make them listen to some music which Garner could then play exactly the same when he got up the next morning.
Garner’s entire family took piano lessons from a woman named Miss Madge Bowman. She began to teach Garner at the age of six. Miss Bowman gave up on Garner due to his disinclination to read music, until she realized the Garner had a natural musical gift and learned all of the work aurally rather than learning to read. Garner started playing piano regularly on Pittsburgh KDKA radio station at the age of seven. He played the piano with a group known as The Candy Kids and when he turned eleven, he started playing on Allegheny riverboats. One of Garner’s high school teachers saw the inborn talent that Garner possessed and asked him to have further education to develop his unusual talent. Garner soon dropped out of the school and joined up with Leroy Brown’s orchestra. While he was working with Brown he learned to play the ‘novelty rag’ styles such as Zez Confrey from the 1920’s.
In 1939, Garner went to New York and began accompanying a night club singer named Ann Lewis. He then returned back to substitute for Art Tatum in Tatum’s trio. Garner stayed in the trio until 1945 when it became the trio of Slam Stewart. He had his own unique style and it was this time only when he met George Shearing and Bill Taylor while playing at Tondelayo’s on 52nd Street. Garner also played on Broadway at the Melody Bar, at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack and Rendezvous. Garner met and recorded Cool Blues with Charlie Parker while he was playing in Los Angeles and the album got released in 1947.
1946 was the time when Garner’s romantic album ‘Laura’ was released and almost half a million copies were sold. He became a public figure after the success of album and had also appeared on the Tonight Show, which furthered his public fame. 1947, 1949 and 1955 were the most incredible times for Garner’s success as Cocktail, The Elf, and Afternoon of an Elfin were released in those years, respectively. In 1950, Garner made his solo performance at the Cleveland Hall and later gave a huge concert in the New York City Town Hall. Garner was then recognized as the first and the only artist who had the ability to perform jazz music under classical impresario. Hence, Garner was truly an artist who never compromised his integrity as a musician.
Erroll Garner was a natural born pianist, rising to fame despite never receiving a formal music education. He played with a lot of professionals, including Fate Marable and Leroy Brown. While he was introduced to classical work at an early age, Garner became a successful performer in 1944 and enjoyed playing more jazz oriented music throughout his whole career.
Garner’s range in his composition was wide. His compositions varied with the needs of the environment and the genre. He was a good composer of romantic music for ballads and composed bold and heroic music for the swingers. Garner was one musician who proved to the world that it truly was possible to be a classy and refined musician even without having known how to read music. He was a creative jazz musician who became popular without changing his style as it was formed.
Garner was a luminous prodigy who had a unique style even on the medium tempo pieces. The beat often stated by Garner was with his left hand and had a rhythm guitar while he played the chords with his right hand and used to play them slightly behind the beat in order to create a dazzling effect. Garner’s magic included his good natured free form prologue, his capability to play the piano perfectly without looking at the keyboard and the pure joy which enlightened his face.
Garner was well known as a jazz innovator, a composer and a pianist. Garner happened to record his compositions with Charlie Parker and became one of the most regularly seen jazz musicians at that time. His technique included a fixed pulse of four beats. On the other hand, beautiful melodies were the trade name of Garner’s music. While listening to Garner’s compositions, one feels that the man who is playing is truly in love with the music and the composition. His music conveys not only a sense of harmony but joy as well.
Videos and Recordings
Erroll Garner plays Misty:
I Get A Kick Out Of You: