Jazz Master of the Month: Erroll Louis Garner

Oct 8, 2015

The word “genius” is thrown around so often that when it truly should be used, it’s often not taken seriously. Make no mistake—Erroll Louis Garner was a genius.

Garner began playing piano at three years old. Born in 1923 with his twin brother Ernest in Pittsburgh, PA, his other siblings were given formal piano lessons but not was not. He never learned to read music and played by ear all his life, even memorizing classical compositions note for note while the music readers struggled. He attended the same George Westinghouse High School as fellow pianists Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal.

To further illustrate his inherent genius, Erroll was ambidextrous. He could skillfully use both hands with equal technical ability. The magic was what he did with both hands. While his right hand played with one rhythm, his left could play another, and that relationship in action created a third which is why he was so unique.

Garner on Piano.

There is hardly a musician, singer, or listener who has not heard Garner’s most popular composition, “Misty.” Even Clint Eastwood named a motion picture after it (“Play Misty For Me,”1971). Garner was also Johnny Carson's favorite music guest on the “Tonight Show." 

 Garner toured, recorded and performed extensively. He always carried a couple of telephone books with him to sit on at the piano to help offset his small five-foot-two frame. When not performing solo piano, his bassist and drummer never really knew which songs he would play until he started. A typical printed program at an Erroll Garner concert would not list the tunes. He would simply take the stage and begin to play. 

One remarkable recorded concert was Garner's live 1955 Concert by the Sea.” It was recorded at the Sunset Center, a former school in Carmel-By-The Sea, California. At age 34 when Concert by the Sea was recorded, Garner could not have conceived that it would become known as one of the most popular jazz albums in history. This month, Legacy Recordings is releasing "Erroll Garner's Complete Concert by the Sea" on the 60th anniversary of the September 19, 1955 original recording. The compilation will delight music aficionados by including eleven previously unreleased tracks, and liner notes by Dan Morgenstern, Geri Allen, and Robin Kelley.