The Erroll Garner Jazz Project Restores A 'Profound Cultural Gift'

Mar 27, 2016
Originally published on March 29, 2016 10:56 am

In 1955, jazz pianist Erroll Garner played a concert in Carmel, Calif. When his manager spotted a tape recorder rolling backstage, she grabbed the reels and decided to release them.

The sound was lousy, yet Concert by the Sea went on to become a huge hit. Pianist Geri Allen says that's because the playing is so exuberant.

"And so after that, what we're really getting, without any barriers, is a sense of the way this man viewed the world," Allen says. "And what he wanted to give to the world, which was this wonderful energy."

Garner, who died in 1977, was popular around the world in the 1950s and '60s for his energetic playing, his swinging rhythm and his ability to improvise. He recorded hundreds of records and composed the standard "Misty." Now, a new archive — and a reissue of his best-selling album — have revived interest in his life and career.

Allen is one of the producers of the expanded and remastered recording of the album, called The Complete Concert by the Sea. It includes 11 unreleased tunes that were discovered on tapes in a huge archive of Garner's memorabilia.

Garner's manager, Martha Glaser, was executor of the pianist's estate. When Glaser died two years ago, her niece, Susan Rosenberg, inherited the archive.

"This was like a gift," she says. "A profound cultural gift."

She used the royalties from Garner's most famous composition, "Misty," to fund The Erroll Garner Jazz Project. Garner himself grew up in Pittsburgh and was completely self-taught — but when he became hugely popular in the late 1950s, critics began to dismiss him as a sellout. Rosenberg says the project aims to rectify that view.

"We came together to invigorate Erroll's musical legacy," she says, "to try to put him back into the canon of great jazz pianists of the 20th century and to support community-based jazz projects."

Steve Rosenthal is the owner of The Magic Shop, the Soho recording studio where hundreds of Garner's newly discovered recordings are being digitized and remastered. He has recordings of dating back to the 1930s; one of the earliest, from 1937, features Garner in the band at Heid Studios in Pittsburgh. It's a cover of a very popular song from that era, "Exactly Like You."

Erroll Garner was only 16 years old on that session. It was found among tapes with thousands of items that sat for decades in nine storage containers in New York City. Ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Arem spent the last two years sorting through the material and preparing it for donation to the University of Pittsburgh.

"This archive is extremely unique for the fact that it spans his entire career," Arem says. "There's everything from photographs to original tapes to his clothing — like his ties. So it really gives you a sense of who he was, where he was and what he was performing at that time."

Garner never learned to read music, but he had an extraordinary ear and ability to improvise. In a 1962 interview found the archive and labeled simply "CBS Radio," a host tells Garner he's heard the pianist can compose tune at the drop of the hat. Garner replies, "I have tried, and I'm pretty sure I can. "

For all of his virtuosity, Garner also understood that being popular meant connecting with his audience. He said, "I like to play what people want to hear."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Pianist Erroll Garner is known as one of the great stylists of jazz. Praised for energetic playing and a swinging rhythm, he died in 1977 after recording hundreds of records and the hit song "Misty."

Now a reissue of his best-selling album and a new archive have revived interest in his life and career. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In 1955, Erroll Garner played a concert in Carmel, Calif. When his manager spotted a tape recorder rolling backstage, she grabbed the reels and decided to release them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL")

VITALE: The sound was lousy, yet, the album went on to become a huge hit. Pianist Geri Allen says that's because the playing is so exuberant.

GERI ALLEN: You know, what we're really getting is, without any barriers, a sense of the way that this man viewed the world and what he wanted to give to the world, which was this wonderful energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "I'LL REMEMBER APRIL")

VITALE: Allen is one of the producers of the expanded and remastered recording "The Complete Concert By The Sea."

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "LULLABY OF BIRDLAND")

VITALE: The reissue includes 11 unreleased tunes that were discovered on tapes in a huge archive of Garner's memorabilia.

SUSAN GREENBERG: This was, like, a gift. It was this profound, cultural gift. Susan Greenberg is the niece of Garner's manager, Martha Glaser, who was executor of the pianist's estate. When Glaser died two years ago, Greenberg inherited the archive. She used the royalties from Garner's most famous composition, "Misty," to fund the Erroll Garner Jazz Project.

GREENBERG: We came together to the invigorate Erroll's musical legacy - to try and put him back into the canon of great jazz pianists of the 20th century and to support community-based African-American jazz projects.

VITALE: Garner himself grew up in Pittsburgh and was completely self-taught. When he became hugely popular in the late 1950s, critics began to dismiss him as a sellout. The Erroll Garner Jazz Project aims to rectify that view.

STEVE ROSENTHAL: So what I can play for you right now is the earliest Erroll Garner recording that we've been able to uncover.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "EXACTLY LIKE YOU")

VITALE: Steve Rosenthal is the music owner of The Magic Shop, the SoHo recording studio were hundreds of Garner's newly discovered recordings are being digitized and remastered.

ROSENTHAL: It's from 1937 at Hyde Studios in Pittsburgh. This is a cover of "Exactly Like You," which was a very popular song from that era.

VITALE: Erroll Garner was only 16 years old on this session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "EXACTLY LIKE YOU")

VITALE: It was among tapes with thousands of items that sat for decades in nine storage containers in New York City. Ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Arem spent the last two years sorting through the material and preparing it for donation to the University of Pittsburgh.

JOCELYN AREM: This archive is extremely unique for the fact that it spans his entire career. There's everything from photographs to original tapes to his clothing - like his ties. So it really gives you a sense of who he was and what he was performing at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERROLL GARNER SONG, "MISTY")

VITALE: Garner never learned to read music. But he had an extraordinary ear and ability to improvise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED: I've heard - now, maybe this is not so - but I've heard from several people that you're capable of composing a tune right at the drop of the hat. Are you?

ERROLL GARNER: Well, I have tried it. And I'm pretty sure I can.

VITALE: Among the hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes in the Garner archive is a 1962 interview labeled simply CBS Radio. The host, who Garner calls Ted (ph), asks the pianist to compose a melody on the spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED: OK, Erroll, here we are at the big 88. Now, I'm going to give you four notes and then see what happens. Now, here are the four notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO NOTES, CHORDS)

GARNER: That right?

TED: Yeah. That's it. That's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MELODY)

VITALE: For all of his virtuosity, Garner understood that being popular meant connecting with his audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARNER: Even if it's a jazz number or one of them, as they call it, soul or (laughter) one of them way out ones, I still feel as though it has a melody to it. And I think the melody should always be developed.

VITALE: Erroll Garner said, I like to play what people want to hear.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.