STANDING UP FOR JAZZ ERNEST MCCARTY RECOUNTS HIS GLORY DAYS AS BASS PLAYER FOR ERROLL GARNER Series: IN TUNE

By Kirkland, Kevin | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

STANDING UP FOR JAZZ ERNEST MCCARTY RECOUNTS HIS GLORY DAYS AS BASS PLAYER FOR ERROLL GARNER Series: IN TUNE


Kirkland, Kevin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Erroll Garner, the famous pianist from Homewood, couldn't read music. Luckily for him -- and jazz fans -- Ernest McCarty can.

Mr. McCarty, 71, of Lawrenceville was playing stand-up bass in a New York City supper club when he saw Garner in the audience -- for the third night in a row.

"He called me over to the table and said, 'Can you travel? Do you have a passport?' There was no audition. That was how he was -- you either knew it or you didn't," Mr. McCarty says.

His first six-week tour in 1970 included two weeks in South America and four weeks in Europe. Mr. McCarty, who says he was paid $750 a week, had to find his way quickly.

"Erroll never said what he was going to play or what key, just started playing the intro. He was unpredictable and I liked that.

"He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom and a tremendous amount of respect. I learned to trust myself musically."

These days, Mr. McCarty plays with the Boilermaker Jazz Band. After bandleader Paul Cosentino, he is the longest-tenured musician in the 24-year-old group. Mr. McCarty moved to Pittsburgh from New York in 1993 because his wife, Patricia, wanted to retire here.

"I didn't come here to play. I came to retire."

Not knowing anyone, he spent the first eight months painting, which he has loved as long as he has music. Then Mr. Cosentino, who founded the Boilermakers while a student at Carnegie Mellon University, found him.

"He was quitting his job to play clarinet. I figured he's trying to get somewhere, and I'll stick around for a while," he says. "I call it my day job."

Mr. McCarty says performing keeps him in shape. During a break in an interview, he played the bassline from "Misty," Garner's signature song. He said the song, composed in the pianist's head, changed every time they played it.

His eyes closed, he leans into the instrument, embracing it. His long fingers dance up and down the strings. He bobs and sways, twisting at the hips, rarely opening his eyes and never smiling.

"I'm not a smiler -- nobody smiles when you play jazz," he says later, recalling how Pittsburghers used to ask him, "Why don't you smile like Nelson [Harrison]?"

"Nobody asks me anymore. It's about what's coming out of my instrument," he says.

Ernest McCarty Jr. was born on March 26, 1941, in Chicago's Cook County Hospital. His mother was part Native American and his father's surname revealed a Scottish ancestor going back several generations. His father insisted he use the "Jr."

"He said if you don't use it, you don't exist."

He played piano first, then violin, but dropped violin "because Mom couldn't afford more than one lesson a week."

At DuSable High School, longtime music instructor Captain Walter Dyett needed a bass player and chose Mr. McCarty, even though he had never played it before.

"It's the best thing anybody ever did to me. …

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