The first time I ever listened to Erroll Garner play, I suddenly had the thought that either the burrito I’d had for lunch was making funny noises in my belly, or there was someone in the room with me. The reason? I was playing a new CD I’d brought home, and mixed in with the piano virtuosity were a number of very strange sounds.
If you know anything about Erroll Garner, you’ve probably guessed by now that the reason I was startled the first time I listened to him was because of his peculiar habit of grunting and muttering to himself as he plays. Of course, he wasn’t the first – or last – musician to talk as he played, but his distinctive sounds combined with his equally special playing style helped make his music instantly identifiable to fans.
The CD I listened to that day was one of those Verve Compact Jazz Sampler albums, and Errol’s song was “Misty”, a tune he also wrote. It became a classic and was one of his many hits during a career that spanned several decades, a career that was especially remarkable for someone who couldn’t read music.
Growing up in Pittsburgh during the pre-war years, he began playing the piano at the age of two or three, probably because his older brother played. Erroll was too young to read music in the beginning, and by the time he was old enough to even think about it he was already so good that he figured he didn’t need it. He lived for the piano, and his talent was such that even while still very young he began appearing on the radio and elsewhere.
As he reached adulthood he began playing in a lot of jazz clubs, where his distinctive style soon drew attention. He’d developed it over his years of playing, and it was something that intrigued jazz musicians at that time. It’s been described in various ways, but at its heart is the way he used his left hand to pound the rhythm – some compare it to strumming a guitar – while playing chords and melodies with his right, often slightly behind the beat.
But words simply don’t do justice to explaining how he played, because Garner could do so many things with brilliance. You have to listen to him creating a memorable listening event to really begin to understand how special he was. One of my favorites, Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” helps prove the point.
He was so short that he sat on a phone book (you can see it in the video below) but he was so comfortable at the keyboard that he sometimes seemed to not even give it his full attention. While playing, he would occasionally look around the room, smiling and talking — but the music was always on target.
Garner was difficult for other jazz musicians to classify, but they enjoyed working with him — even if they had to pay close attention to his musical introductions, which might contain some surprises. Throughout the 1940’s and 1950’s he worked with many of the best, including Charlie Parker and Billy Taylor, but mostly he performed with his own small group, recording dozens of records and remaining solidly popular.
Most of his hits were jazz or pop standards, but they were given the unique Garner treatment and often found new life. Songs such as “Body And Soul,” “Night And Day,” and “All The Things You Are” were very different with his interpretations.
In the 1970’s declining health forced his retirement, and he died in 1977, but he should be remembered as a very talented and distinctly different jazz legend.