Remembering jazz pianist Erroll Garner
After my review last month of the 53rd annual Monterey Jazz Festival, I started thinking about Erroll Garner, the incredible jazz pianist who played the theme song in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me.
I was fortunate enough to know Garner, who died in 1977, and to count him a friend. I met him through Jimmy Lyons, founder and general manager of the festival from its beginning in 1958 through 1992 when he retired.
I met Garner, the diminutive, self-taught piano stylist at the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival when he performed his composition “Misty” for a sold-out Saturday afternoon concert filmed by Eastwood, who was directing his first movie. I was working as publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival, and I was an enormous admirer of Garner’s work. When I told him that, I guess my sincerity came through, and he took a liking to me – almost as a mascot. For several years after that, at Christmas, a gift would arrive from “Your Buddy, Erroll.” They were always beautiful Steuben crystal animal figurines. One year I got a hippo, another year, a pelican.
I had been turned on to Garner’s brilliance as a jazz piano player by a live album, Concert by the Sea. In 1955, my friend Jimmy Lyons, then a Monterey Peninsula disk jockey, brought Garner to Carmel for a concert. The recording of that concert became one of the largest-selling jazz albums of all time. If you’re unfamiliar with this landmark recording, do yourself a favor and give it a listen. It’s incredible Garner.
My friend Erroll was only five-feet-two-inches tall and when he played, he usually sat on a New York telephone book placed on his piano bench. He liked to sing along a bit as he played. Sing is not really the operative word – he liked to growl and hum. You can hear it on this album. Erroll’s piano style was big and two-handed, but his two hands operated completely independently from each other. While his left hand chorded with a metronome-like steadiness, his right hand was all over the place time-wise. Sometimes it raced ahead and sometimes it lagged behind the beat, setting up a tension thatcould drive you up the wall – but it swung like crazy. Erroll was not a bop or post-bop artist. He was a swing artist who loved pop tunes from the Great American Songbook. You could dance to his music. That is, you could dance to it once Erroll finished the elaborate, all-over-the keyboard introductions he liked to lay out before he set that left hand swinging and then teased out the melody with his right hand. He was a powerful and gregarious piano player, but off stage he could be a bit shy and not given to small talk.
But that’s enough background. Now, here’s an Erroll Garner anecdote you might enjoy:
In the early seventies I was doing some publicity work for an East Bay car dealer, Carl Jefferson. Jefferson loved jazz, and in 1969 organized the Concord Summer Festival (later to be known as the Concord Jazz Festival) in a grassy town park. Early on Jefferson booked my buddy Erroll Garner.
Before the evening show in which Erroll was to perform, Jefferson, knowing I had a relationship with the pianist, approached me backstage and asked a favor. He had planned a postconcert blowout party at his big ranch-style house on the edge of town. Would I gather Erroll after the show and bring him out to the house for the party, which would be held on the patio surrounding Jefferson’s swimming pool? The mayor would be there along with other city officials and town business leaders and Contra Costa County social types. Jefferson had a baby grand – newly tuned – and wouldn’t it be nice if the great Erroll Garner played just a couple of tunes?
I drove Erroll to his nearby resort hotel following his performance. On the way I told him about the party and Jefferson’s newly tuned baby grand. He wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea, but he was a gentleman – a heavily sweating gentleman since it was the middle of a hot summer evening and the performance had been, as Erroll’s always were, strenuous.
So I parked in front of the hotel, and Erroll went to his room for a quick shower and change of clothes. A half hour went by. Then another half hour. I went into the lobby and telephoned Erroll’s room. No answer. I thought we had missed each other passing in the lobby. I went back to the car. No Erroll. Then I thought to look in the hotel cocktail lounge. He was sitting at the bar nursing a big one. He smiled when he saw me and asked if he could buy me a drink. Of course. Then I bought one for Erroll. Then Erroll bought one for me. Erroll had a couple more, but I was the designated driver.
We finally got in the car and drove out to Jefferson’s house. As I turned into the semicircular driveway, I became dubious. No valet to park cars. In fact there were no cars anywhere. We parked, got out and approached the big front door, and I rang the bell. I could see no lights in the house and heard no party noises. We stood there. Erroll looked really nice. He had on a blue buttoned-down shirt with a silk tie and a cream-colored summer suit. I was dressed OK for a publicist, but a bit rumpled.
I rang the bell again. Then I rang it once more. Finally the door opened. Erroll and I gave our best hello smiles. Carl Jefferson stood there in a bathrobe. He did not invite us in.
Ernest Beyl is a regular contributor toNorthside San Francisco. He is still awestruck by Erroll Garner after all these years. E-mail: email@example.com