Erroll Garner, the famous pianist from Homewood, couldn't read music. Luckily for him -- and jazz fans -- Ernest McCarty can.
Mr. McCarty, 71, of Lawrenceville was playing stand-up bass in a New York City supper club when he saw Garner in the audience -- for the third night in a row.
"He called me over to the table and said, 'Can you travel? Do you have a passport?' There was no audition. That was how he was -- you either knew it or you didn't," Mr. McCarty says.
His first six-week tour in 1970 included two weeks in South America and four weeks in Europe. Mr. McCarty, who says he was paid $750 a week, had to find his way quickly.
"Erroll never said what he was going to play or what key, just started playing the intro. He was unpredictable and I liked that.
"He gave me a tremendous amount of freedom and a tremendous amount of respect. I learned to trust myself musically."
These days, Mr. McCarty plays with the Boilermaker Jazz Band. After bandleader Paul Cosentino, he is the longest-tenured musician in the 24-year-old group. Mr. McCarty moved to Pittsburgh from New York in 1993 because his wife, Patricia, wanted to retire here.
"I didn't come here to play. I came to retire."
Not knowing anyone, he spent the first eight months painting, which he has loved as long as he has music. Then Mr. Cosentino, who founded the Boilermakers while a student at Carnegie Mellon University, found him.
"He was quitting his job to play clarinet. I figured he's trying to get somewhere, and I'll stick around for a while," he says. "I call it my day job."
Mr. McCarty says performing keeps him in shape. During a break in an interview, he played the bassline from "Misty," Garner's signature song. He said the song, composed in the pianist's head, changed every time they played it.
His eyes closed, he leans into the instrument, embracing it. His long fingers dance up and down the strings. He bobs and sways, twisting at the hips, rarely opening his eyes and never smiling.
"I'm not a smiler -- nobody smiles when you play jazz," he says later, recalling how Pittsburghers used to ask him, "Why don't you smile like Nelson [Harrison]?"
"Nobody asks me anymore. It's about what's coming out of my instrument," he says.
Ernest McCarty Jr. was born on March 26, 1941, in Chicago's Cook County Hospital. His mother was part Native American and his father's surname revealed a Scottish ancestor going back several generations. His father insisted he use the "Jr."
"He said if you don't use it, you don't exist."
He played piano first, then violin, but dropped violin "because Mom couldn't afford more than one lesson a week."
At DuSable High School, longtime music instructor Captain Walter Dyett needed a bass player and chose Mr. McCarty, even though he had never played it before.
"It's the best thing anybody ever did to me. The bass has taken me everywhere.
"It's not a solo instrument. It's a supporting instrument. It kept my ego in check."
Then he adds: "I've had a love-hate relationship with this instrument my entire life."
Though DuSable's alumni includes jazz notables Gene Ammons, Nat King Cole, Dorothy Donegan and Eddie Harris, Mr. McCarty was a classical musician, one of only two African Americans who earned spots in the All Chicago Youth Orchestra and the only one to join the Civic Orchestra, a training ground for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At age 17, he was scheduled to audition for the symphony orchestra.
"I said, 'Are you ready for me? What music?'
"He said, 'We can't let you audition 'cause you'll pass.' Then he started crying.
"I didn't understand. He said, 'You picked the wrong parents.' "
He quit playing classical music and turned to jazz, which he says is much more colorblind. Not that playing jazz made him any more welcome in mostly white venues.
"I couldn't stay in downtown hotels. That hurt me a lot," he says.
At Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago, he majored in composition and minored in string bass, taking his first formal lessons. His first big break came at age 21, when he joined Oscar Brown Jr.'s band in 1962. "That is when I got into show business. Before that I was just a musician."
He became the musical director when he discovered that the former director was purposely inserting mistakes into the scores so the other musicians would have trouble, making himself indispensable. During tours of Europe and Asia in the mid-'60s and '70s, he would send postcards back to his father -- unsigned.
"Dad always said: 'If you're doing music, you're going to starve to death.' I've been trying to prove him wrong ever since."
The unsigned cards were his own personal protest over his father's insistence that he use "Jr." "Since I didn't exist, that couldn't be me in the Balkans, in Hong Kong."
Before Ernest McCarty Sr. died in 1974, his son made his peace with him. But he still regrets never inviting his father to see him perform in Chicago.
In New York, Mr. McCarty co-wrote the musical "Dinah! Queen of the Blues" with Sasha Dalton and has written or co-written more than 25 produced plays and musicals. He was artistic director for New Horizons Theater for 15 years.
At this point in his life, the musician is content to do only what he wants to do.
"I have nothing to prove. ... If you only have one thing to do in life, you do it."
He wants his great-grandchildren to "know that something was going on." And he will play the upright bass as long as he is able.
"Bass has always been the thing that saved me."
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978.
First Published 2012-08-01 00:01:34