Erroll Garner was one of the most popular jazz pianists and composers in the world from the 1950s through the 1970s. During his forty year career he performed in concerts around the world as a soloist and leader of his own trio. Garner was the first and only jazz artist presented by classical music impresario Sol Hurok. As a top selling recording artist his 37 albums were released on the Mercury, RCA, ABC-Paramount, Columbia, MGM, Reprise, and the Octave labels. His composition “Misty”, one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1991. Nine of his albums reached the top of the Billboard charts including “Concert By The Sea” (#12 1958), Other Voices (#16 1957), Dream Street (#35, 1961), and Gemini (#24 in Jazz 1973). “Concert by the Sea" is one of the best-selling jazz recordings of all time.
Garner appeared frequently on television including the shows of Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como, Gary Moore, the Steve Allen, Merv Griffen, Mike Douglas, and many times on the Tonight Show. He was Johnny Carson's favorite jazz musician. His music is heard in the soundtracks of 31 movies and television shows including Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty for Me”, Oceans 11, Cheers, Designing Women. and Naked Gun 33 1/3. Garner is honored with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993. The diminutive Garner, only 5' 2" in height, often sat on telephone books to reach the keys. But he was a giant in the history of piano jazz.
“Erroll Louis Garner was one of the greats of jazz piano history….Garner was an innovator equaled only by a handful of pianists such as Earl Hines, Fats Waller and Art Tatum”. — Leonard Feather in the Los Angeles Times Jan. 3, 1977
"Erroll Garner was a giant among jazz pianists.... His music is melodic, rhythmic, rhapsodic, and original. As a musician he was one of a kind" -- Billy Taylor
"The greatest popular pianist of our century." -Steve Allen
Born to a Music Family in Pittsburgh
Erroll Louis Garner was born on June 15, 1921 in Pittsburgh. Living on 212 North St. Claire Street he grew up in a musical family of three sisters, his twin brother Ernst, and his older brother Linton. Every member of his family played an instrument and most of them sang. His father, a trumpeter, played in his own band in addition to working two full time jobs. His parents were singers in their church choir and his brother Linton became a professional pianist. Erroll began playing piano at age three. He was a self-taught musician who played by ear. He could hear a song once and play it back. With that skill he never learned to read music. His mother got him piano lessons but he never read the lesson books. Garner also learned from his brother Linton and his neighborhood friends Dodo Marmarosa and Billy Strayhorn.
Turned Pro at ElevenAs a young child Erroll earned nickels and dimes playing piano for his neighbors. He made his first performance on KDKA radio at age 7 and became of regular on KDKA at age 9 playing piano with the Kan-D-Kids group. He started working professionally at age eleven playing at rent parties, at neighborhood clubs, and on the riverboats. Learning that Erroll was a popular draw, Fate Marable hired him around 1931 to play with his band on the Streckfus Steamer’s riverboat dance cruises. Erroll snuck out his house to work on the riverboat cruises that left from Wood Street in downtown Pittsburgh.
Beginning in 1935 Erroll attended Westinghouse High School, whose other famous musical alumni include pianists Billy Strayhorn, Patricia Prattis Jennings and Ahmad Jamal. From teacher Carl McVicker he learned the tuba and played in the high school band at football games. Garner so often snuck out of his academic classes to watch Mr. McVicker work with his bands, that the school let him spend half of his school day in Mr. McVickers classes.
After graduating from high school, Garner worked full time as a musician. Between 1938 and 1941 he played with the Leroy Brown Orchestra in the Pittsburgh area. But he was turned down for membership in the Pittsburgh Musicians union because he could not read music. They gave him an honorary membership in 1956 after he came to fame as member of the New York and Los Angeles local unions. Erroll continued to work locally in Pittsburgh as a free lancer until 1944.
Making It in New York City
Garner began making occasional appearances in New York in 1939. He accompanied singer Ann Lewis and filled in for Art Tatum playing with Tatum’s trio which included bassist Slam Stewart. He moved to New York City in 1944 and quickly became a star. He played simultaneously in three different clubs as accompanist to Billy Holiday and Bill Daine and with Slam Stewart’s trio at the Three Deuces on 42nd Street. He took over Slam’s Trio and performed at Tondelayo’s on 52nd, The Melody Bar on Broadway, the Rendezvous, and at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, Garner was an immediate sensation in New York, achieving recognition for his unique style and virtuosity. In 1945 Garner and trio recorded “Serenade to Laura” on the Savoy label. It sold almost half a million copies in the U.S. bringing Garner to national attention. He made his first appearance on Steve Allen’s NBC Tonight Show in 1946.
Working in Los Angeles In 1947 Garner led a trio with Red Callender and Doc West. While in California in February 1947 the trio recorded a session backing Charlie Parker. The classic Parker album “Cool Blues” was released on Dial records and featured the tunes “Bird’s Nest” and “Cool Blues”. Garner appeared with his trio at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1948.
Garner moved from the club scene to concert halls beginning in 1950. He gave solo recitals at the Cleveland Music Hall, a major classical concert venue, and at New York City’s Town Hall. He was the first and only jazz artist to perform under classical impresario Sol Hurok. Garner made his first European tour in 1957, toured for six weeks in 1958 and returned many times. He appeared on several European television and radio shows. In 1964 He appeared live on two consecutive nights on the BBC's music series "Jazz 625". His recording career flourished with the release of “Body and Soul” (1952), “Too Marvelous for Words” (1954), “Mambo Moves Garner” (1954) and his original song "Misty" (1954) that insured his enduring stardom. He recorded “Concert by the Sea” in a converted church in Carmel, California in 1955. It was one of the first ever million selling jazz albums. He named best pianist in Downbeat Magazines international jazz critic's poll in 1957. Garner continued releasing top strong-selling albums on Columbia “Other Voices” (1957), Dreamstreet (1961), “One World Concert” (1963), “Up in Erroll’s Room” (1968), and Feeling is Believing (1974). Together with his manager Martha Glaser, Garner founded his own label, Octave Records.
Garner began scoring films in the 1960s. He composed the music for the film “A New Kind of Love” in 1963. In 1968 Garner’s appearance on Danish television show became the movie “Erroll Garner in Copenhagen”. His single "Misty" was featured in the Clint Eastwood thriller “Play Misty for Me” in 1971.
Gartner continued to sell out concerts around the world, to record, and to score films, ballets, and Broadway musicals into the 1970s. Garner continued to release albums: “Gemini” (1972), “Magician” (1974), and “Play It Again Erroll” (1974). Amazingly Garner sat down unprepared to compose and record the double album “Play It Again Erroll” in just one day. He worked constantly throughout his career earning over a quarter of a million dollars annually. He stopping touring in 1975 as his health failed. Diagnosed with lung cancer in early 1975 he went into retirement. He died on January 2nd, 1977 at the age of fifty-five. Garner is buried at the Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.