Saturday, February 22, 2014

Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read

by Bill Holmes

I just smiled for an hour. No, I wasn't watching a comedy show or movie. I wasn't reading a funny book. I was watching a documentary about Erroll Garner, the great jazz pianist. The show was on in the middle of the night (morning) on Starz.  For some reason I noticed it while skimming the online TV guide and hit the record button. I watched it later on Friday (2/21). To be honest, what caught my eye at first glance was that the show had something to do with Erle Stanley Garner, author of the Perry Mason books. I did realize on second glance that this show was about Erroll, not Erle. 

The description of the show said it was first shown in 2013 and the credits showed some 2012 copyright information. That may be true but besides the old clips of Erroll there were pieces from Steve Allen (who died in 2000) so I'm not sure when this was actually made.

Many of you may not know who Erroll Garner is. He was a very popular jazz pianist from the 1940's into the 70's. Besides many recordings, club dates and concerts, he was a fixture on several TV shows. He made the rounds on all the talk and variety shows. I remember Erroll from those appearances. I haven't thought much about him in recent years but I'm very glad I watched this documentary.  

How would I describe Erroll Garner's music and playing in one word? JOYFUL. He played with a smile on his face and that smile went through his fingers and into the piano. In one of the clips from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in an interview, Johnny was saying that he could almost always recognize Erroll's playing. He first asked Erroll what was it about his style that was so recognizable. Garner kind of shrugged so Johnny turned to the band and asked Ross Tompkins, the piano player, the same question. He yelled back across the stage "happiness". A perfect answer. 

Erroll started playing the piano at three and never had any formal musical training. He never learned to read or write music. He wrote many songs but he did it in his head or at the piano. He would record them and someone else would write down the music. When asked if being unable to read music was a hindrance his answer was "No one can hear you read", hence the show's title. Erroll was a musical force who unfortunately died way too early at the age of 53 in early 1977. He played the piano as naturally as we non-musical mortals breathe. He caressed the keys and seldom looked at the keyboard. He knew where all the keys were.

His one composition you may recognize is the song Misty. It is the title song of the movie Play Misty for Me and probably the signature song of Johnny Mathis. 

I did find one rebroadcast on 2/25 @ 7:55 am CST on Starz InBlack. If you get the Starz channels, find it and set the DVR.

As I said at the beginning, I smiled the whole hour as did Erroll whenever he played. I'm so glad I stumbled upon the program and had the good sense to record it. He was the little guy who sat on a phone book and made a piano smile. Erroll Garner at YouTube. I encourage you to listen to this joyful genius's recordings. You don't need to be a jazz fan. Check out his music, you'll be happy you did.


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