Erroll Garner Biography

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Erroll Louis Garner, 15 June 1921, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 2 January 1977, Los Angeles, California, USA. A self-taught pianist, Garner played on the radio at the age of 10 and within a few more years was playing professionally in his home town. Among the bands with which he played during this period were those led by Leroy Brown and, reputedly, Fate Marable. In 1944 Garner moved to New York and began working in nightclubs, including the Rendezvous and the Melody Bar. He became a popular and successful performer in these establishments, but also enjoyed playing at the more jazz-orientated venues along 52nd Street, such as Tondelayo’s and the Three Deuces. For a short time, he worked in a trio led by Slam Stewart, but soon formed his own trio.

For the rest of his life, with only occasional exceptions, Garner worked as leader of a trio or as a soloist. Throughout the 50s, 60s and early 70s, he toured the USA, playing prestigious club and hotel engagements, appearing at festivals and on radio and television. He also visited Europe and the UK, where he appeared on television, and in 1962 he had an album in the UK charts. During these years, Garner recorded numerous albums, some of them, such as the classic Concert By The Sea, becoming virtual fixtures in the catalogue. Although Garner taught himself to play, he never learnt to read music, yet he contrived to create several jazz tunes, including one, ‘Misty’, that became a standard when Johnny Burke added a lyric. Slight echoes of the full sound of Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines occasionally appear in Garner’s playing, as do touches that suggest he had absorbed the work of the stride piano players, yet throughout the bulk of his vast output, Garner remains unique. Playing consistently to a very high standard, he developed certain characteristics that bear few resemblances to other pianists. Notably, these include a plangent left-hand, block-chorded pulse, a dancing pattern of seemingly random ideas played with the right hand in chords or single notes, and playful introductions, which appear as independent miniature compositions, only to sweep suddenly, with apparent spontaneity and complete logic, into an entirely different song.

Sumptuously romantic on ballads, and fleet and daring on up-tempo swingers, Garner’s range was wide. Nicknamed ‘The Elf’, more, perhaps, for his diminutive stature than for the impish good humour of those introductions, Garner was the first jazz pianist since Fats Waller to appeal to the non-jazz audience, and the first jazzman ever to achieve popular acclaim from this audience without recourse to singing or clowning. Dudley Moore acknowledges much of his style to Garner, and ‘swinging 60s piano jazz’ owes a massive debt to him. Stylistically, Garner is in a category of which he is, so far, the only true member. Since his death in January 1977, there has been no sign that any other pianist other than Keith Jarrett is following his independent path in jazz.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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