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
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
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?"
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. …