Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Erroll Garner
Pianist and composer, Erroll Garner, was a once in a century artist who performed on the world stage beginning in the late 40’s, becoming a global star throughout the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. His unique pianistic approach was a distillation of the big-bands he loved as a child growing up in Pittsburgh, and the music he created (with more than 200 compositions published) was deeply rooted in Black American cultural traditions. During his rise and until his untimely death in 1977, his music became synonymous with a sense of joy and introduced jazz to millions of people. His most well-known composition, “Misty,” was among the 20 most performed songs of the 20th century, according to ASCAP.
“I get ideas from everything. A big color, the sound of water and wind, or a flash of something cool. Playing is like life. Either you feel it or you don’t.”
As a musician, Garner defied categorization with a behind-the-beat rhythmic approach that continues to delight fans and challenge scholars in 2021. As a progressive force in music business, he broke records and pushed boundaries, charting a course for future generations of musicians to follow. He brought his trio into symphonic halls and broke attendance and box office records. His album Concert By The Sea was the first jazz album to achieve over $1,000,000 worth album sales, and following his victory in a protracted legal battle with Columbia Records over artistic control of his output, he became one of the first Black musicians to own his own record label, Octave Record, founded in 1960.
Born in Pittsburgh, June 15, 1921, he began playing the piano at the age of four. He was recognized as a prodigy early on and by age ten he was playing on local radio. He arrived in New York in the early 1940’s and played every club in Harlem and on 52nd Street. His first big recording hit was on the Savoy label in 1946 with “Laura.” He toured in Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and in 1947 made an iconic series of recordings with Charlie Parker in Los Angeles. Garner released dozens of albums and singles throughout the 1940s and 50’s with Mercury, Columbia, Savoy and others, becoming an international star in 1957. He won both the Down Beat Readers’ Poll and the International Critics Poll for best pianist, and Concert by the Sea, Other Voices, Most Happy Piano, and a new single of “Misty” made him the most popular Jazz pianist in America.
From 1960 until his death at the age of 55 in January 1977, Garner had complete control over his musical output. By recording for his own label and licensing his masters to various companies for release, he pioneered a revolutionary approach to the industry that paved the way for future generations of artists.
Thanks to the work of his manager, Martha Glaser, Garner’s prolific career was preserved and his archives now reside at the University of Pittsburgh. It is one of the largest and most complete archives of any 20th century musician. In 2015, The Erroll Garner project was formed to promote his legacy through new musical releases, performances, and creative partnerships. 2021 marks Garner’s centennial, and celebrations continue with a new live album and boxed set on the Mack Avenue label.