AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
by Harvey Siders — 10/19/1967
Yes, Virginia, there are leprechauns. I know because I’ve been running into one lately in Los Angeles. It seems everywhere I go, he’s there, listening, burying himself in some dark corner, just “quietly finding out what’s happening.” He must be a leprechaun. He’s 5'2" and has a pixieish smile. Of course, he doesn’t always get away with being incognito. Sometimes the musicians in the clubs he infiltrates recognize him, and then comes the inevitable announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a very special guests with us tonight, and with a little encouragement, I think we can bring him on the stand … Erroll Garner!”
To have Garner in our midst, or for that matter in anyone’s midst, for an extended period is a rare privilege. His traveling schedule is usually as persistent as his left hand. But at the moment he’s “re-discovering” the city he once briefly called home.
Of course, there is more involved than nostalgia. Garner has been bitten by the writing bug. Not just the writing of songs; he’s more than proven his skill in that form. What he seeks are outlets commensurate with his talents. And since those talents are formidable, the ideal outlets would be motion pictures and television. But he has his sights set beyond.
“I really want to write something. Not classical, but modern. I hope to do a ballet someday. And I don’t mean a ballet like West Side Story. I’m talking about a real legit ballet like Swan Lake. I would also like to write a Broadway show—either a musical comedy, or a play that calls for music in it. I figure I’m not the only one to write flops. Not that I want to spend the people’s money—what do you call them in the theater—stockholders? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to make them lose their money, but I wouldn’t be embarrassed. The most important thing for me is that at least I made the attempt. Understand what I mean? Man, I just want to spread.”
He still hadn’t touched on the most accessible Hollywood media—films and TV. Those answers were harder to come by. “Well, I can’t say anything at this point. We’ve been in touch with some important people and I’ve had a few scripts sent to me already, so we’ll see what happens. At this point, nothing has been signed.”
Another factor temporarily interfering with Garner’s campaign to ”spread out“ is his prohibitive concert schedule. He’s really torn, because he loves to travel and he loves to play—whether it be in a concert hall or a club. At press time, he was busy choosing a drummer to go along with him, bassist Al McKibbon, and percussionist Jose Mangual for a scheduled German tour.
When the tour is over, Garner will be back in Los Angeles, hopefully to get down to some serious writing. Since Garner would be writing themes and someone else would be doing the scoring, he was asked about his choice of orchestrator.
“I would pick someone who could understand what I hear and what I feel. Someone who knows me. The first one I can think of is Leith Stevens. He’s the one I did the film A New Kind of Love with. He’s scored over 60 films and you might say he knows a little bit of everything. He goes way back; in fact, he’s the one who did the arrangement for Bunny Berigan on ‘I Can’t Get Started.’ Yeah, Leith knows the people who can play and he always gets the best musicians on his dates.”
Another project is occupying Garner’s busy mind—that of music for an album devoted to the “sights and sounds of Los Angeles.” He’s not sure what form it will take, nor even the instrumentation at this point, but one thing he makes certain: “I want to be free to experiment.”
Garner paused a bit, then came up with an interesting self-evaluation: “I feel like I got a lot of stuff on the surface, but I’m really like an iceberg, you know what I mean? There’s a whole lot of stuff down there that hasn’t seen daylight yet.”
The idea of writing for films or TV, or for that matter, the idea of even writing songs, brought up a subject which could be a source of embarrassment to a less honest musician than Garner.
“Do you or do you not read music?” was the tactful way I broached the topic. “There have been distortions and exaggerations in articles I’ve read about you, and general disagreement among musicians whenever your name crops up.&rdquo. Garner replied, without hesitation, “The truth is I don’t. And there are a lot of people who still don’t believe it.”
“Did you ever study piano as a child?”
“Oh sure, I went up to about the seventh book when I was a kid in Pittsburgh. But one day my piano teacher said, ‘OK, let’s go back to Book One.’ When I couldn’t remember how certain melodies went, she suddenly realized I had learned everything she played by ear. Not only that, but I was adding notes that weren’t there. So that ended that. She felt so ashamed, ’cause she and my mother belonged to the same club at the time. She really felt so bad about the whole thing she wanted to give my mother the money back. But they decided to put the money into the club.”
This is proof that Erroll Garner is one of those rare birds in this business known as “naturals.” It is a much abused and little understood term, tossed off as casually as the phrase “perfect pitch.” But “natural” applies to Garner as accurately as the word “pianist.” People are amazed by natural musicians, and even though they don’t understand the mechanics of music, are awe-struck by the fact that such a great sound can come from an unschooled talent. There are even musicians who look upon Garner with suspicion. They respect his proficiency, but wonder how such consummate artistry can flow from those fingers.
Bassist Al McKibbon, who can hold his own in the rhythm section of any band or combo, is one of those who has no doubts about Garner. Following a recent week at the Greek Theatre (in the Hollywood Hills) in which the pianist used McKibbon on bass, and Bill Douglass on drums, McKibbon told this writer, “I wouldn’t dare take my eyes off Erroll’s left hand. He not only re-harmonizes at the drop of a hat, but he also played something in A that we had rehearsed in A-flat!”
Garner was amused when that incident was brought up. His eyes flashed that familiar mischievous look as he said, ‘Well, I’m not sure what key I was in, but I wanted a more brilliant sound, something that would give the tune a different outlook.”
No put-on; just a natural answer. As natural as his gravitation to a sharp key. All part of the paradox that is Erroll Garner. A paradox because he’s a happy enigma. Engimas aren’t supposed to be happy. Everybody knows that except Garner. But there he is, sitting on top of the world (with the aid of his telephone book—as inseparable from Garner as the handkerchief from Satchmo) bursting with talent; bubbling with the contentment that aesthetic and financial success bring; brimming with ideas for new fields to conquer.
The real enigma is the creative process itself. Woodshedding and dues-paying can only partially explain it. Studying with the most gifted teachers won’t reveal much more. And when someone like Garner comes along, all theories are shot to hell. It’s better not to try to explain him—merely to enjoy.
“I’m one of the fortunate pianists in this world. I’ve had some of the finest rhythm sections that any pianist could ask for. I’ve had Shadow Wilson, John Simmons, Red Callender, Harold West, J.C. Heard, Oscar Pettiford, Slam Stewart, Leonard Gaskin, Charlie Smith, Denzil Best, Candido, Eddie Calhoun, Kelly Martin—and I’ve recorded with guys like Don Lamond and Alvin Stoller. Jeez—I think I’ve been very fortunate.”
Equally fortunate were those who played behind him. Garner never asked any one of them to duplicate the sound of the bass player or drummer who preceded him. “I would never tell a guy to play like someone else. I think that’s the worst thing you can do. You know, I wouldn’t even tell him what I wanted to hear—well not exactly. I might tell what I expect to hear, but I always tell him to play it his way, which is a different thing.
“How about playing your way? When did you develop that guitar-like left hand?” I asked.
“Oh that—I started doing that in a night club in Pittsburgh. You know, I’ve really been playing piano since I was 3 years old, but it wasn’t until that job that I really had to do something different. I tried to hire a drummer—it was the kind of club where they wouldn’t let you have a bass. So I just had to provide my own. Between my foot and my left hand I started making my own rhythm section.”
Garner recalled that he used to stomp so loudly the club owner decided to put a rug under the piano. At that time he wore cleats on his shoes, and even with the rug the sound still came out as “clack, clack, clack.”
“Funny thing—everyone thought I was making triplets with my heel— ‘clack, clack, clack’—I’d stomp on breaks and everything. But that’s really how the steady sound of my left hand got started.”
So much for the hand and the foot. Now what about the grunt-along?
“Oh that? I’ve been a noise-maker all my life. There’s no thinking back on that. At times I catch myself when I get real loud and I try to hold back a little bit. But really, I’m not doin’ anything—just playing and singing what I feel. I find it helps me to get the notes out right. Of course, if I ever played what I’m humming, I don’t know what that would sound like.
“I’ll never forget the first time I ever did it in a recording studio. It was at Columbia, and a guy runs out of the control room and he starts looking all over the piano. He was one of those real great guys, you know; he knew all the knobs and everything. Well, he kept searching and just as he was ready to get me another piano, he found out it was me. It was a funny scene, but what could he do? So after that they just let it stay in.
“I’ll tell you something: I can be walking down the street and I start humming to myself, and before I catch myself, I notice people giving me strange looks. It happens a lot, but I can’t help it—something comes into my mind, y’ know what I mean?”
Certain things would come into his mind when he was playing cocktail lounges, but fortunately he could give vent to them. Things like “Misty,” “Dreamy,” “Solitaire,” “Gaslight.” “They’d have this request thing in the clubs, you know, little cards on the table. The people would write their requests on the card, then send it up. Oh, man, I’d have them stacked up this high, and after I played a bunch of requests I got brainwashed. So to get my mind off all that stuff, I’d sit there and make up my own melodies.”
Garner’s lack of reading knowledge does not hinder his composing. He merely puts the melody on tape or disc and someone takes it off. When he played with big bands, such as Georgie Auld’s, he didn’t have to rely on anyone else. “I just sat there and listened to the band rehearse. Then when they finished and said, ‘Let’s run down everything now with the piano,’ boom—there I go. If I had a solo, I knew where it came in. Once it hit my ear, there it stayed. The more they played, the more it stayed. There were times when I learned certain chords from guitar players who played chords the way I do.”
Anyone familiar with the pianist’s expansive, free-wheeling style of playing might wonder if playing in a band might cramp his style. But according to Garner, if he could feed a saxophonist or trumpeter a good background, it gave him the same satisfaction as taking a chorus himself.
As Garner explained: “I love to comp, and that’s what they need more of in big bands today—and behind singers. You know, I came up playing for singers. I know them very well, well enough to stay out of their way and just keep feeding ’em. I’ve worked with Billie Holiday, with Sarah, and once or twice with Ella. I didn’t work with Ella; just jammed with her, somewhere on the Street” (52nd Street, in the mid-’40s).
“I used to drop into the Down Beat—that was next door to the Three Deuces—and it was really two kicks in one: not only playing behind Billie, but working with Big Sid Catlett on drums. Boy, oh boy, that was a million-dollar gig for me. Of all the singers I ever heard, Billie Holiday had the finest sense of expression. There was a certain magic in the way she’d sing the words—like she was living them for you right before your eyes. And of all the singers today, Peggy Lee shows the most respect for her.”
To Garner’s way of thinking, accompaniment is an important art. He cited the contributions of Ellis Larkins, not only for his backing of Lee Wiley, but for the accompaniment he lavished on harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler.
The praise that Garner heaped on good accompanists, plus the genuine satisfaction he derives from comping, seem inconsistent with his musical personality. Outwardly, that personality is assertive, persuasive, as unyielding as the Rock of Gibraltar, and firm enough to test metronomes. But somewhere in the communications apparatus that links head, heart, and hands is the self-effacing side of his nature—that part of his psyche that encourages him to subordinate his strong pianistic personality for the overall good of the musical experience.
That’s the Erroll Garner that’s been making the rounds—from the Sunset Strip of West Hollywood to the “chitlin circuit” of South Los Angeles—quietly, unobtrusively, devoid of fanfare.
“I prefer to do it that way, ’cause that’s what I believe in. It’s the only way I get to hear what’s going on, and it saves an artist from either getting nervous or going into some other kind of bag just because I’m there. I just want to catch them relaxed, like they are, then let me draw my own conclusions.”
The only thing that occasionally prevents Garner from drawing his own conclusions is, using Garner’s epithet, “an ear-beater.” He invariably comes across that species just when he’s ready to sit back and listen to something of interest. Since the “ear-beater” is a universal annoyance that confronts all of us in one context or another, I asked Garner for his method of extricating himself from his grasp.
“Well I hate to say it, but when it reaches a certain point I simply announce, ‘Excuse me, but I’ve got to go to the men’s room,’” he laughed.
Another common but more enjoyable interruption to his listening forays is the invitation to sit in. And Garner confessed, “I’ll sit in any time they ask me. Of course if there’s some kind of contract restriction hangin’ over my head, then I can’t.”
Garner explained that if he had a week off after, say, the gig at the Greek Theatre, he could play anywhere. But the contractual ban on his pre-Greek appearances protects the public. “Somebody will say, ‘I saw him jamming three nights in a row—why should I go up to the Greek to hear him’—you follow?”
On the subject of the avant garde, Garner was extremely cautious about committing himself. There were some sounds he dug; others he “didn’t quite get with yet.” Maybe “cautious” or “non-committal” are inaccurate. He was being very fair about the subject. His criterion for judging is listening to a group in person. Recordings are one thing, but as he pointed out, “A lot of these guys are well trained, and they went to universities. If you went to meet ’em and talk to them, you might learn a little more about what they’re trying to do or what they’re aiming for. But I haven’t been able to catch these groups in person. That’s been my hang-up.“ However, he did offer one basic reaction to the sounds of today: “I don’t think jazz should get to the point where it is completely undisciplined.”
No hang-ups when the conversation got down to one of the racial schisms dividing jazz today. To the allegation that jazz is the exclusive property of the Negro, Garner remarked, “I don’t get that message. I certainly couldn’t say that, because I’ve been around some pretty good musicians who can play jazz real well. Like Zoot Sims, who is a very close friend of mine, and Al Cohn—I can name off plenty. Woody Herman had colored and white musicians in his band and they liked each other’s playing. Charlie Parker had Al Haig—Dizzy had Lalo Schifrin; they all liked each other’s playing, and hung out together, went out every night and jammed together. So it doesn’t make sense. If you feel that way about something, why do it if you’re not gonna be happy with it? Why record with each other, unless it’s for the money? What are they proving? I’m sure they had their choice of people they wanted to play with.”
Garner’s personal preferences among fellow pianists back up his own feelings on the matter. “I like [George] Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, Wynton Kelly, Andre Previn, Ray Charles, and Gerald Wiggins.” But his tastes are not confined to the keyboard. “I love to hear big bands; singers; anything that includes Ray Charles; that group with Red Skeleton—you know, the Alan Copeland Singers; I like rhythm and blues, a little rock ’n’ roll; I like a lot of classical things and Brazilian things. By that, I mean correct bossa nova.”
With interests as broad as that, it comes as no surprise that Garner is concerned about reaching the youngsters across the country. “Sure, it’s possible to go to the schools. I’ve played many high schools. But what they should have more of is the matinee where the kids can attend. They don’t have to serve liquor. They got ’em for the rock ’n’ rollers—so why can’t they have ’em for jazz?”
The rapport Garner establishes with his young audience, whether at a special matinees or during numerous campus tours, is so strong it has a built-in danger: a type of “backfire”” induced by idolatry. What if some gifted youngsters should decide that since Erroll made it without reading or formal study, why should they bother?
“Well, for the kids’ sake, I wouldn’t want to see that happen. If a kid has a gift, then decides, ‘Well I don’t read and that’s tough,’ he might find himself unable to play anything worthwhile in the future. If he’s lucky enough he may end up as just another one of those cocktail-bar piano players.”
Warming up to the subject, Garner had another bit of advice for younger musicians: “Whatever you write or play, make sure it has a little bit of melody to it. Like I always say, if I take you out, I’ll bring you back when I come back. I don’t say it’s wrong to take people out—but don’t leave ’em to find their own way back.”
With Garner as guide, no listener will ever have a re-entry problem. Perhaps that’s the secret of Garner’s longevity. A gimmick as uncomplicated as “a little bit of melody.” I’ve seen diverse audiences react to Garner’s pianistics, and their reactions were as predictable as Erroll’s grunts.
First comes his characteristic intro: highly complex, contrapuntal imitation. (Maybe Garner wouldn’t describe it that way, but then he’s not obliged to; he merely perpetrates it.) Not only does the left hand know what the right hand is doing, but it literally gives chase, setting up a rhythmic “interference” so intricate in its syncopation you tend to trip over the offbeats.
Then comes the release from the tension: just a little bit of melody over that steady, tight-voiced pulsation in the left hand. Before he reaches the fourth bar, he is bathed in appreciative applause.
And Garner returns the warmth as he flashes his little-boy smile—teeth, eyes, and even the patent-leather hair, all reflecting the lasting love affair between the audience and the swinging leprechaun perched on the telephone book.