A Jazz Legend Who Played The Y

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. "I just don't feel comfortable playing it the same way. I don't ever want to stay in a hole. I want to improve all the time."

Whatever Garner played seemed played with joy. And it's here again in the "Solo Time!" recordings.

The session began with "Flamingo," and you'd almost think you were in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel in New York. So lush, so romantic, so far from saxophonist Earl Bostic's classic wailing, heavy-beat version.

Garner sometimes drew criticism for his schmaltzy, impressionistic side. Usually he offset it with some pixieish turn, imaginative leap, or rhythmic invention. French critic Andre Hodeir wrote: "A slow piano solo by John Lewis or Erroll Garner may be made up of sounds that could figure in a European composition, but its pulsation will show that it is jazz."

Mentioning Lewis and Garner in the same breath recalls a renowned comparison of literary styles.

Lewis's elegant improvisations are often spare and transparent, the work of a "leaver-outer" like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Garner, like Thomas Wolfe, was definitely a "putter-inner." Typically, he'd hold a tune up to the light and discover - or add - facet after facet.

For example: "It Might as Well Be Spring" begins with romantic filigree, slips seamlessly into Viennese waltz time, starts to sound like a "Moonlight Sonata" with its motor running, strolls easily into huge chords with the left hand and bluesy clusters with the right, goes back to strolling, merges into a classical canon, makes a resounding statement, tries waltzing again, moves along into Garner's trademarked four beats with the left hand and virtuosic tremolos with the right.

Incidentally, according to Schuller, a full-hand octave tremolo takes so much strength and technique that Garner was one of the few, such as Earl Hines and Art Tatum, who were able to sustain a tremolo as long as they wanted. Schuller also put Garner with Tatum among pianists whose "tone and touch" had "the open-toned, natural quality of African speech and song" - a characteristic of "all the great jazz stylistic innovators."

Certainly an openness and naturalness come through in the new album. Listening to "Liza," for example, I think I get a hint of what trumpet star Dizzy Gillespie means when he describes the evolution of black music and calls Garner "the most sanctified pianist that we had." He adds, "Give him a tambourine, no bass, no drums, nothing else, and he'll get it."

Not even a tambourine on "Liza." But Garner seemed to be a big band like those of the '30s that he said inspired him. There's the crashing expostulation of the full ensemble at the beginning, the back and forth like reed and brass sections, the sudden quiet of just the rhythm section and a soloist. With Garner's famous right-hand rubato it's as if the soloist can't quite keep up - but always finishes on time. Then there's a whole new silken riff that muted horns might be playing. Then something slower, s omething fugal. A big orchestral ending.

Missing from "Solo Time!" are those long, labyrinthine, witty, often mystifying introductions that allegedly were sometimes Garner's way of buying time till he decided what tune to play - while not only the audience but his drummer and bass player remained in suspense.

There are examples on albums such as "Afternoon of an Elf" (with a bombastic, percussive prelude to a surprisingly airy "St. James Infirmary"), "Dreamstreet" (with "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" emerging from possible glints of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square"), and the celebrated "Concert by the Sea" (with Khachaturian-like turbulence melting into a delicate "I'll Remember April").

For earlier Garner, the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz has "Fantasy on `Frankie and Johnny' " (1947), where a whiff of Debussy is part of an already diverse Errollian mix. The Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano goes back to 1945 for "Back Home Again in Indiana," with its big-band sound, as well as "This Can't Be Love" (1949) and Garner's own "Play Piano Play" (1947).

Whether in his own song or somebody else's, the melody shows through Garner's layered improvisations. Sometimes it's like a multiple exposure with each melody note repeated. Garner offers his hand to those aggrieved listeners for whom Mel Torme sings, "Please don't bury the tune." As Garner himself might have put it when he performed at the Y - and as he does put it in lines accompanying "Solo Time!":

"I like to play certain tunes because of their melody. Why should I disguise that melody? No matter who the artist is, he can't work for himself. Someday, somewhere, he'll want somebody else to see, hear, or read his work - to share it. I'm sharing mine."

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