A Jazz Legend Who Played the Y

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WOULD you like Luciano Pavarotti to sing at your adult education class? That's how I felt when I was asked if I'd like Erroll Garner to play for the jazz history course I was teaching at the local YWCA.

Maybe Garner was not quite as big a star as Pavarotti is now. Obviously not in physical stature - even at Carnegie Hall he put a Manhattan phone book on the piano stool. But Erroll, as he was fondly called, became the only jazz soloist to tour under the auspices of the same international impresario, Sol Hurok, who represented concert artists. And, just as Pavarotti embraces a world audience beyond hard-core opera fans, Erroll embraced a world audience beyond hard-core jazz fans.

Unlike Pavarotti, Garner did not read music. But he still composed songs. "Misty" - a quickie inspired by a rainbow he saw from an airplane - became so popular that years later Hollywood relied on its mass appeal for the title of a movie, "Play Misty for Me."

Could it be that Erroll Garner was offering to play "Misty" for me? At the Y?

Those days from the middle 1950s come to mind because I've been wallowing in the two latest volumes of "The Erroll Garner Collection" - a lode of previously unreleased recordings that go on renewing Garner's legacy 15 years after his death. Volumes 4 and 5 make up a double-CD album, "Solo Time!" (EmArcy label). It includes 21 songs - all "first takes" - from one dazzling 3 hour, 32-song session in Detroit in 1954.

Why were the results not released right away? Perhaps because a musicians' union representative advised Garner to stockpile recordings while his hands were in peak playing form.

Those hands were manifestly in peak form when Garner visited Boston a couple of years later on a tour of universities from Princeton to UCLA. His manager at the time was a man who had long volunteered to give the Y jazz students a taste of live music by bringing a Boston band to the classroom. He had never actually brought the band. Now, almost at the end of the term, he stunned me.

"Would you take Erroll Garner?"

"W-w-would I!"

These are approximate quotes. But Garner was willing to do it - as amiable offstage as on - and the question was when. The answer was immediately. The jazz course was over, but there was still a graduation dinner for all the adult-education students.

That's when Garner appeared, playing and smiling for 20 minutes or so, reaching out to the initiated and uninitiated alike. No fee. No complaints about the out-of-tune piano with several broken keys, the only one available on short notice. (I remember the wry, "Thank you, ladies!" from another pianist of the time, Stan Kenton, when he sat down at a rickety concert grand and read the plaque saying it was a donation from a women's group.)

"How could you do anything on that terrible piano?" groaned the manager as we leftfor Garner's next engagement.

"It made me think a little," said Erroll with that elfin grin beloved by the media. He had simply outsmarted the piano, playing around the broken keys. I wasn't really surprised when jazz scholar Gunther Schuller recently placed Garner among the "tiny handful" of musicians incapable of playing "wrong notes." How so? "Because any such note is immediately turned into a `right' note by what they do with it and after it."

The great pianist Mary Lou Williams told of trying to teach young Erroll to read music but soon skipping it: "I realized he was born with more than most musicians could accomplish in a lifetime."

I asked Garner how he could play the written arrangements of big bands he had belonged to. He said he would "go and sit in a corner" and listen until he had learned his part.

How could he perform a song over and over but not the same way as on his recording of it? He said he could remember certain parts but never the whole thing. It didn't really matter. …