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Garner, Erroll (Louis)

Pianist Erroll Garner established himself out of the rag tradition and created a sound all his own. In an era of piano giants, Garner stood just over five feet tall, and sat on a telephone book to better reach the keyboard. But his ability to play melodies in octaves over huge left hand voicings separated him from his contemporaries.


         Erroll Garner (left) and Art Tatum at Birdland, 1952
                          Photo by Marcel Fleiss

Erroll Louis Garner was born June 15th, 1921 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Garner’s parents were both singers at their local church. Garner’s mother was a graduate of Avery College in Pittsburgh. Garner had an elder brother, Linton, and a twin brother, Ernest.

Garner started playing the piano when he was three years old. He never learned how to read music, which added to his distinctive sound and style. At the age of seven, Garner appeared on local radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, with a group called the Kan-D-Kids. Garner also studied with his brother Linton, who also played the piano.

By the time he was a teenager, Garner was playing professionally on the riverboats in Pittsburgh. He attended Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, whose other famous musical alumni include pianists Ahmad Jamal and Billy Strayhorn. Between 1938 and 1941, Garner also played off and on with the Leroy Brown Orchestra in Pittsburgh.

In 1939, Garner traveled to New York City as an accompanist for singer Ann Lewis. He returned to New York City to fill in for Art Tatum in his trio, which included bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. Garner kept performing with the trio when Slam Stewart took it over in 1945.

Garner played at the Three Deuces on 42nd Street with Stewart, guitarist Johnny Collins, and drummer Harold West. Also in 1945, Garner recorded Serenade to Laura, for the Savoy label. The song, Garner's adaptation of the theme to a popular 1994 film noir mystery film, featured John Levy on bass and George DeHart on drums, and sold close to half a million copies in the United States.

The success of this single propelled the pianist into the public eye. In 1947, Garner was leading his own trio with Red Callender and Doc West in the Los Angeles. That same year Garner recorded Cocktail Time for Los Angeles music-store owner Ross Russell's Dial Records. Also in California was saxophonist Charlie Parker, who had just been released from the Camarillo Mental Hospital, and Garner recorded Cool Blues with Parker for Dial.

Garner was one of the most popular entertainers of the early 1950s, and appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show. In 1950, Garner recorded an LP for Columbia, Long Ago and Far Away, which featured the song "“Lover." In 1951, Garner recorded his version of "Penthouse Serenade" with bassist John Simmons and drummer Shadow Wilson. In 1954, Garner recorded his best-known composition, "Misty" for Verve. Featured on this recording are bassist Wyatt Ruther and drummer Eugene “Fats” Heard. Starting in 1950, Garner also actively performed as a solo artist, with concerts that year at both the Cleveland Music Hall and at New York’s Town Hall. In 1954, Garner recorded his album Mambo Moves Garner, an album that found the pianist experimenting with the era's popular Cuban dance rhythms.

In 1955, Garner entered a converted church in Carmel, California to record his album Concert by the Sea, which featured bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best. This album was one of Columbia Records best-selling albums of the decade, and featured the songs I’ll Remember April" and "April in Paris." Garner continued to release strong-selling albums for Columbia through the 1950s, including Feeling is Believing and Other Voices in 1956, and Paris Impressions in 1958.

In the 1960s, Garner began to score films. In 1963, he composed the music for the feature film A New Kind of Love, which starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Garner released several successful albums in the 1960s, including Erroll Garner Plays Gershwin and Kern, Dancing on the Ceiling, and Easy to Love. All three albums were released in 1965 for the Mercury and its subsidiary EmArcy label. In 1967, Garner had moved to MGM, and released That’s My Kick. In 1968, Garner appeared on Danish television along with bassist Ike Isaacs, drummer Jimmie Smith, and bongo player Jose Mangual for a taped appearance that became the movie Erroll Garner in Copenhagen.

Into the 1970s, Garner toured the world and continued to record as well as score films, ballets, and Broadway musicals. However, his health steadily declined, and he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1975. Garner released Gemini and Magician for London Records in 1972 and 1974, respectively. Garner also released Play It Again Erroll for Columbia Records that year. Garner also recorded with orchestras during this time, and since he didn’t read music, the orchestra performed from charts while he played from memory.

Since Garner never learned to read or write music, much of his early work was never captured. However, his later work was written down as he composed it. Garner’s song “Misty” was used in the 1971 Clint Eastwood-directed movie Play Misty for Me, which starred Eastwood alongside Jessica Walter and Donna Mills.

Erroll Garner died on January 2nd, 1977 at the age of fifty-five from lung cancer. Garner is buried at the Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the Squirrel Hill section of the city. Erroll Garner left behind a long, strong legacy of personality in his music. Few pianists are bold enough to try and imitate his signature combination of uncompromising left hand chord attacks and right-hand melodic ideas.

Select Discography

As Erroll Garner

Cocktail Time (Dial, 1947)

Body and Soul (Columbia, 1952)

Misty (Mercury, 1954)

Concert by the Sea (Columbia, 1955)

Feeling is Believing (Columbia, 1956)

Paris Impressions (Columbia, 1958)

Erroll Garner Plays Gershwin and Kern (Mercury, 1965)

Play It Again Erroll (Columbia, 1974)

With Charlie Parker

Cool Blues (Dial, 1947)

Contributor: Jared Pauley