Erroll Garner Played for Fun

Conversation with a clerk at a megastore, May 2003:

"Do you carry a DVD of Erroll Garner?"

"Oh, I know that, it's like, um, adventures of Erroll Garner, right?"

"Uh, I don't think so, I think it's something like Erroll Garner in concert."

"No, my boyfriend showed it to me. He, like, fights pirates and stuff, right?"

"Excuse me?"

"What kind of movie is it?"

"He's a jazz musician. It's a concert film."

"Oh, right. I'm thinking of Errol Flynn."

Actually, it's called Erroll Garner in Performance, and consists of two 35-minute sets taped in 1964 for the BBC series Jazz 625. In fairness, Garner's attack does indicate a swashbuckling fortitude, a piratical confidence, an adventurer's audacity. Still, not long ago—OK, 25 years ago—every record store clerk in the nation knew Erroll from Errol, simply because of the volume of records he moved, as suggested by an earlier tête-à-tête. Having first encountered Garner at a 1964 concert in Queens, I had bicycled the next morning to a record store and looked in vain for a Garner bin or, failing that, Garner albums in the miscellaneous G section. I asked an employee, "Is it possible you don't have a single record by Erroll Garner?"

"No, it's not possible. We have lots of Garner. Where did you look?"

"In jazz."

"We don't keep him there," he said, leading me to the section for pop pianists like Roger Williams, Ferrante and Teicher, and Carmen Cavallaro. Perhaps sensing my embarrassment even to be seen in this vicinity, the clerk reached into the large Garner bin, pulled out Concert by the Sea, and said, "This is what you're looking for." He explained that no guilt by association was intended; it was just that a large part of Garner's tremendous following had no interest in jazz. He was wrong about associative guilt, though. Although many jazz critics acclaimed Garner as a giant, many others dismissed him as middlebrow: One Down Beat critic likened him to a can of soup, and another argued that he had been in decline since 1948. How good can he be if everyone understands what he's doing?

Or rather, how bad can he be if he routinely holds the interest of the great unwashed with six- and eight-minute improvisations in a totally original style that influenced practically every jazz and pop pianist alive—if not to play like Garner, then at least to express his joy. John Coltrane's line about Stan Getz ("We'd all like to sound like that if we could") applies emphatically to Garner; no matter how dreamy, rhapsodic, or laggardly his playing may be, it always radiates contagious delight, gaiety, energy, exuberance. Imagine feeling as good for one hour of each day as Garner apparently felt every time he played piano. The consistency alone is anti-jazz, to the degree that jazz reflects manifold feelings—even Fats Waller recorded sorrowful laments—and normal people are usually less than ebullient.

But who said that Garner was normal? Picking out complicated melodies at age three and broadcasting professionally at age 10, he created a style so much his own—without learning to read a note of music—that it has abided as a kind of jazz orphan, without ancestry or descendants. Yet one recognizes multiple seasonings in the compound—Lisztian rhapsody, Debussyan harmony, Wallerian stride, big-band riffs, Powellian involution, Monkian rhythmic displacement—despite the self-contained singularity that inclines other pianists to take on the Garner gestalt. Midway in, say, a Jaki Byard solo, a Garneresque passage has the effect of a Jimmy Cagney impression interrupting a dramatic monologue. On his own, Garner can be plenty dramatic; cited by others, he represents humor or well-being. Garner wrote 200 songs in addition to "Misty," on which he probably could have retired early, and even the mistiest and dreamiest of those tunes signify affirmation.

Beyond emotional constancy, the stylistic ingredients that make up the Garner approach are easily tallied: droll abstract introductions, metronomic time, flashing octaves, strummed or broken or cascading chords, winsome variations, impressionistic harmonies, guitar- or harp-like arpeggios, extreme shifts in dynamics, orchestral pounding, and quirkily protracted or abrupt closings. The rhythmic independence of his hands suggested a disconnect bordering on twin personalities; indeed, an associate pointed out that Garner could sign autographs with either hand. For all his fabled spontaneity (he once recorded three albums' worth of material at a single session, and frequently barged into a number with no preconception of what he would play), Garner developed a standard format. The intro leads to a theme statement, a single-notes variation (frequently beginning with a pianissimo right hand), a storming block-chord episode, a reprise of the theme, and a coda. The variations might be one chorus or several, and he might alternate the linear and block-chord inventions until exhausting his interest in a piece. What he rarely exhausted was his audience's patience.

His playing does not avert predictability. The stabilizing nature of Garner's style can become tiresome if you know the drill, and a surplus of rote Garner defines the limits of joy when it lacks inspiration. Yet as the DVD shows (the first set is mostly excellent, the second starts brilliantly and then flags), he could almost always sustain an audience's fascination. Two things invariably keep the train on track. First, he swings hard enough to allay reservations; if he has charge of your foot, he can get to your mind. Second, and more impressively, he improvises with a matchless lucidity that allows people who glaze over at the thought of improvisation to follow Garner's most fanciful inventions. One way he pulls this off is by introducing a motif or secondary theme; its recurrence has a subliminal effect not unlike rhyming verse. He also intersperses notes or chords from the theme—usually at turnbacks, like road markers—to keep it in plain sight. A typical example is "How High the Moon" (1950): The improv begins with a phrase played twice, which is echoed in the first two bars of each of the succeeding eight-bar segments. Add contrasting dynamics, a device few jazz pianists other than Cecil Taylor and Ahmad Jamal have explored before or after Garner, and you have a music so spellbinding it could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

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