AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
There’s no way Erroll Garner could have foretold, from his perch at the piano on a Monday evening almost exactly 60 years ago, that he was creating one of the most popular albums in jazz history. He probably didn’t even know tape was rolling.
But as he led his trio in a converted school auditorium at Fort Ord, near Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., Garner, 34, locked into a high creative gear, captivating an audience that wasn’t shy about showing its approval. “Everybody was so beautiful,” he said after the concert, which stretched past an hour and a half. Had there been a way to go longer, he added, “I would have been glad to, sincerely, because they made me feel like playing.”
Garner expressed those thoughts to Will Thornbury, a recording engineer for the Armed Forces Radio Network, who had been taping with a reel-to-reel machine for an intended broadcast. It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, Garner’s watchful manager, Martha Glaser, claimed the rights to the tapes, taking them to Columbia Records, where they were edited to make “Concert by the Sea.” Released in 1956, that album would become Garner’s defining work: a crossover hit and a pianistic touchstone, despite a murky sound quality that reflected its makeshift origins.Photo
Geri Allen is among the untold number of present-day jazz artists whose relationship with the album dates back to childhood. “Revisiting it now has been so empowering for me as a piano player,” she said recently between sets with her trio at the Village Vanguard. “Just hearing the way he expressed himself on the instrument — it was so fearless, and so free.”
“The Complete Concert by the Sea,” a new three-CD boxed set from Sony Legacy and Octave Music Publishing, greatly expands and improves on the original album. Produced by Ms. Allen and Steve Rosenthal, it includes 11 previously unissued tracks from the concert — doubling the amount of music — along with long introductions by the promoter, Jimmy Lyons, and that postgame interview by Thornbury. A windfall and in some ways a revelation, the boxed set is just the first sign of a major archival effort around Garner that seems likely to raise his stature in the jazz pantheon, and to reaffirm his place in the lineage of jazz pianists.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Garner was self-taught at the piano, a savant who played by ear, never learning to read music. If this was the cause of any insecurity, he didn’t show it. The word most often used to describe him is “happy.” He had an open, expressive face, framed by a shiny-slick helmet of hair, and stood just 5-foot-2; his trademark accessory was a Manhattan phone book, which he used as a booster seat on piano benches.
To the extent that a musician can be both overexposed and underexplored, Garner fits the bill. “Concert by the Sea” was a cornerstone of his transcendent pop career, along with his lush romantic ballad “Misty,” which became a standard and, for Johnny Mathis, a calling card. From the 1950s into the ’70s, Garner was one of a handful of jazz musicians known to a mainstream audience: a sterling concert attraction; a show-business personality; a favorite guest on more than one edition of the “Tonight” show. (Steve Allen and Johnny Carson were both fans.) In 1971, Clint Eastwood made his film-directing debut with “Play Misty for Me,” a thriller in which he plays a disc jockey, and Garner’s song plays a pivotal role.
The unpretentious ebullience that came naturally to Garner was a central facet of his music. He exerted an absolute authority with dynamics and tempo, a whimsical flair for harmony, and a fondness for florid romanticism. He had a unique way of feathering a steady pulse with his left hand, like the Count Basie rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, while his right hand lagged rakishly behind the beat. Another specialty were the improvised preludes with which he would often begin his tunes, leaving the audience and his band mates guessing as to which melody would eventually emerge. (The original “Concert by the Sea,” produced by George Avakian, opens with a famous example of this, on “I’ll Remember April.”)
Garner’s influence among jazz pianists runs wide, with sworn admirers including Ahmad Jamal. But the particularities of his style are so identifiable that many pianists steer clear of him, probably for fear of risking caricature; he’s a Bogart, a Chaplin. (Dan Nimmer, the pianist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, is one of the few younger players I’ve seen who routinely evokes Garner in his solos. He always gets applause for it.)
Another reason you don’t hear Garner’s name in serious discussions of the jazz piano legacy, at least not as often as you should, might be a perverse consequence of his success. “Because Garner has committed the sin of being accepted by the general public,” the jazz journalist and historian Dan Morgenstern wrote in 1965, “certain jazz critics have attempted to dissect and downgrade his art.” When “Jazz,” the 20-hour documentary series by Ken Burns, was broadcast on PBS in 2001, Garner was a conspicuous omission.
Garner died of lung cancer in 1977, and it was sometime later that the fate of his legacy began to take shape. Ms. Glaser had been his protector and advocate: Through her tireless efforts, Garner received proper royalties for his compositions (not a commonplace in that era, certainly not for African-American musicians) and became the only jazz artist represented by the renowned impresario Sol Hurok.Photo
Ms. Glaser kept exhaustive records, and as the co-executor of Garner’s estate, she also kept mountains of material, locked down tight. “If I had been entrusted with the last but unviewed works of someone such as Picasso,” she said in The New York Times in 1985, “I would be very careful about which museum or gallery they would be shown in. With Erroll’s recordings, I’m extremely concerned about sound.” Among her hopeful projects was a second volume of “Concert by the Sea,” though the location of the master recordings was unknown.
“Martha didn’t really know how to deal with it all,” said Susan Rosenberg, her niece, who took over after Ms. Glaser died last December, at 93. “It was an overwhelming amount, and since she was always a one-woman operation, it overcame her in a certain way.” The trove, housed in eight different storage spaces, included contracts, memorabilia and more than 1,700 recordings, many of them unreleased studio sessions.
Ms. Rosenberg initiated an archival effort, enlisting the ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Arem and Mr. Rosenthal, the producer. Over the last several years, working with a small team as the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, they sorted through the bounty, which includes Garner’s final performance, and a week’s worth of live recordings at the Village Gate in 1965.
“What’s exciting about this particular archive,” Ms. Arem said, “is that it’s multimedia, so if you have a recording of an unreleased show, you may also have a photograph from that show, and a poster, and a testimonial from someone, and the contract. So you have a lot of supporting material to illustrate how this show fits into the breadth of Garner’s career.”
This year the whole mass went to the University of Pittsburgh, establishing a definitive Erroll Garner Archive there. “Students are going to really benefit from having access to all this information,” said Ms. Allen, the university’s director of jazz studies. That the archive resides in Garner’s hometown, with a mission of outreach to its African-American community, is right in line with Ms. Glaser’s hopes.
So is “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” which was assembled through considerable detective work, in the Sony vault in New York and at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where Garner was a frequent performer. (This year’s Monterey Jazz Festival included a 60th-anniversary tribute to “Concert by the Sea,” organized by Ms. Allen, with the pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands.)
“The vision that people had of Erroll in those days was very much down-the-middle,” Mr. Rosenthal said at the Magic Shop, his recording and restoration studio in SoHo. “When you listen to the stuff that was left off, you get a much more adventurous approach. These 11 songs that were left off the record really speak to a bigger picture of what he was like as an artist.”
The music bears this out, often spectacularly. Garner’s grand finale was a joy ride through “Caravan,” with multiple false endings and just as many rhythmically complex bravura turns. Among the other previously unreleased tracks are a vivid, subtly exploratory take on “Laura,” with which Garner had had an early hit; a sly, sauntering “Lullaby of Birdland,” which elicits hoots of recognition; and a boppish “Bernie’s Tune,” at a racing clip.
But even on the more familiar fare, the dimensions of the sound shed new light on Garner’s achievement. He recorded extensively as a solo pianist, and his trios had a certain reputation: He was the thoroughbred, and his bassist and drummer were expendable. But Garner, as it turns out, is truly leading a trio: the bassist Eddie Calhoun and the drummer Denzil DaCosta Best sound alert and engaged, and the extent of their contribution is finally clear.
“When you consider the whole idea of the piano trio, the history of the piano trio, his has to be looked at,” Ms. Allen said firmly. For the first time in a long while, that seems like a possibility. If events play out as they should, that examination of his legacy will extend beyond a single live recording, however magnificent it happens to be.