Red Garland

red garlandRed Garland is perhaps most famous for his unique block chord style and expressive, classically-influenced right hand lines. He was a prolific performer and recorded extensively throughout his career, with greats including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Roy Elridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young.

Garland came from a family with no musical history, but his passion for music started early on and he started his musical journey by learning the clarinet and alto, he switched to piano when he turned eighteen. Steady practicing transformed him into an adept player in no time and he started his career in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, backing famous musicians of the time, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge. He later joined the classical Miles Davis Quintet in 1955 along with John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers.

From that point, there was no turning back for Garland, as he recorded his most famous music, the Prestige albums, with a prominent display of what has since become his trademark style. In 1958 Garland formed his own trio, leaving the quintet, and recorded with Jimmy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Blue Mitchell, Ira Sullivan, and Leroy Vinnegar, though he continued to record with Prestige as well. He retired from performance for a number of years in the late sixties and returned back to Texas. A decade later, Garland emerged from retirement and again began to record, but his later work was different from his earlier recordings, and has not received the same critical acclaim.

Garlands most credited recordings are those he played with the Miles Davis Quintet and those from his own trio. The Prestige albums, The New Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin, Relaxin, Workin and Steamin with the Miles, each became famous in their time, and also paved the way to influence later jazz styles.


red garland jazz pianoBorn on the 13th of March, 1923, in Dallas, Texas, William M. Red Garland belonged to a family with no musical background. His father worked at the First National Bank as an elevator operator. Garland, however always showed a passion for learning music. He took his first step in the world of music with clarinet as a young boy. Buster Smith, a strong influence on Charlie Parker and an eminent Texan saxophonist, was one of Red Garlands first teachers.

While in the Army at the age of 18, in 1941, Garland started playing piano. Every night Red Garland used to hear John Lewis, a pianist who played in the recreation room. When his interest transformed into passion for piano he asked Lewis to give him lessons. Garland learned quickly, given he had already learned the musical basics from Buster Smith.

While he was learning piano, Red Garland achieved much in the field of boxing. He was a welterweight and a semi-professional prizefighter. This was a tough time for Red Garland to choose between music and boxing. While spending his entire days practicing enthusiastically and making good progress, Garland was left with a broken knuckle as a memento for not choosing boxing.

Lee Barnes, another army pianist, was Garlands other teacher. Garland learned from his recordings after leaving the service. Nat Cole and Count Basie were his influences at that time and Garland used their recordings to learn concepts, touch and phrasing. Bud Powell, Luckey Roberts, Art Tatum, James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson were also major influences on his style.

Garland played his first piano gig in 1945 with Bill Blocker, a Fort Worth tenor player. Garland was then chosen by Page the night after he performed for him. Thinking he was not ready, Garland refused at first. But his old teacher Buster Smith and Page talked to him and Garland started on the road to success. His new chapter began after Pages tour ended in New York. He found work in small a small club where Art Blakey heard him and recommended him to Billy Eckstine. Garland was then hired and since took his step in the world of music as a pianist.

William M. Red Garland has taught himself more than other teacher could have. He gained a reputation in the mainstream as a solid post-bop player in 1950. He has worked with many of the jazz musicians who were well known at that time. In the late 50s, he accomplished international fame being a part of the Miles Davis quintet. In 1968 he retired and led his own troops. In 1976, he reemerged and played regularly until he died in 1984 due to heart attack.

Many of the pianists in 1960s were influenced by Garlands block chords. After making his own musical group, during 1956 to 1962 Garland very frequently recorded for Jazzland, Moodsville and Prestige. His flawless rhythm perfected single note harmonious phrases. He was the master at obtaining emotions. He chose his notes wisely and drew the attention of audience progressively.

Musical Style

red garland pianoGarland began to develop his own style while still in his late teens; with time it transformed into a unique interpretation of jazz piano playing. Punchy rhythms flowing through a firm left hand, fearless block chords, and smooth arpeggios improvised by the right hand were the highlights of Red Garlands art. He was widely recognized for his mainstream style with his unique block chord approach, where both of his hands sounded on each note of the melody. This approach allowed him to generate a rich, full sound out of his piano.

While he did not create the method for playing block chords, the uniqueness of his technique is what made them a recognizable symbol of his style, and made a name for him among the earlier block chord pioneers. Garlands block chord method differed from other musicians of the time such as George Shearing mainly because his chords did not shift until the chords changed, which made his music create an uplifting quality. This is the main reason why Garlands block chords style influenced so many musicians that came after him, continuing well into the 1960s.

Garland also gave birth to the swing interpretation of classical single-note melodic lines. He was capable of creating an extraordinary intensity out of the minor blues. His wisdom in choosing notes and spontaneous counterpoint skills were commendable, accented by a flawless sense of rhythm. Steady tune building to grasp the attention of audience was something he understood well. However, modal jazz was not Garlands genre. He preferred the primary standards, show tunes, and blues, with occasional jazz tunes from the bebop era.

Garland often adopted a pure parallel fifth above the bottom melody note. This caused his style to be distinguished by the resultant dissonances that occurred when the fifth sounded out of the chord. He was a prolific, often expressive improviser with melodious yet innovative ideas and a strong sense of swing.

His work was a blend of the common influences of his times and his personal characteristic technique. A number of personalities enhanced his potential. These include Count Basie and Nat Cole, who refined his touch, phrasing and conception, Page, who influenced him with his strength and versatility and Bud Powell who was the second most inspirational man to him. But Art Tatum was his favorite, who taught him to let the piano play itself.

He supported many key players like Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young, but remained practically indistinct during 1946-1955. Later, he led a rhythm section in the Miles Davis quintet which included Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. He left Miles in 1958, after being a vital member for four years. He then formed his own trio and continued to record for Prestige, Jazzland, and Moodsville throughout 1956-1962. Both the breadth and depth of his work continue to distinguish Garlands style from the other great pianists of his era.

Videos and Recordings

Red Garland Trio plays On Green Dolphin Street

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