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Erroll Garner’s 'Concert by the Sea' and the Importance of Historical Reissues

On January 28, 2016

San Francisco broadcaster Jimmy Lyons is best known for starting the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958 but, before that, he coordinated the Summer Series in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. The series gets its name from the Sunset School, where Lyons put on concerts in the Summer and Fall of 1955. These shows were known for hosting enthusiastic and eager crowds, comprised mostly of servicemen from the nearby Fort Ord military base.

It was near the end of the Sunset Series that Lyons booked jazz pianist Erroll Garner to play alongside bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best. The concert was intended to go unrecorded because the Sunset School’s acoustics were poor, their piano out of tune, and Calhoun’s bass and Best’s drums out of balance.

But then Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, found a tape recorder running backstage. It belonged to an engineer working for the Armed Forces Radio Network who was recording the concert for his private collection. Glaser took the tape and, after playing it for the head of Columbia Records, released an abridged LP titled Concert by the Sea in 1956.

The LP earned over a million dollars by 1958 and is—to this day—considered to be the finest record that Erroll Garner ever made. Jazz critic Scott Yanow even went so far to say that Concert by the Sea made Garner “an immortal.”

In a room with poor acoustics, on a piano that was out of tune, during a concert that wasn’t supposed to be recorded, Erroll Garner made on of the most popular jazz records of all time.

I can’t believe I hadn’t heard it until last week.

Even if you’re like me, a passive jazz patron,Concert By The Sea, is instantly recognizable as the masterwork of a true genius. Garner’s pianos are happy without being shallow, complete with bouncing rhythms and a continuous rolling melody. The record goes back and forth between beating cross-rhythms and elastic trills that, at times, sound like they’re played by two different musicians instead of just two different hands.

While jazz is a genre marked by spontaneity, Garner performs so masterfully that it feels premeditated, if not predestined.

2016 marks the 60th anniversary of Concert by the Sea and in celebration Sony Legacy released an unabridged version of the recording, called The Complete Concert By The Sea, including 11 songs from the concert that were omitted from the original 1956 release.

The entire concert has been remastered from the original tapes. This is important to note because, when Columbia first published the LP, they did so with an altered version of the recording that was meant to replicate the sound of a concert recorded in stereo. The results were murky and deflated and, with each remastering thereafter, more inaccurate in speed.

It’s amazing to think that such an influential record could ever have been produced so poorly.

But that’s what makes the 2016 reissue so important. Thanks to modern technology, Sony Legacy’s release of The Complete Concert By The Sea offers a sound that’s parallel to the acoustics of the room in which it was recorded.

It should come as no surprise that The Complete Concert By The Sea has been nominated for a 2016 Grammy in the category of “Best Historical Album,” an award that, in recent years, has been awarded to Brian Wilson, Woody Guthrie, and Paul McCartney.

But why does it matter thatThe Complete Concert By The Sea is nominated, and why are we covering it here?

For an album that has received so much critical acclaim, so much notoriety, that has been so influential over the years and has spent its lifetime as an essential jazz standard, Concert by the Sea has yet to receive the recognition it deserves. While it is one of the best selling jazz records of all time, the Recording Industry Association of America has never recognized Concert by the Sea as a Gold album.

And, to be honest, it seems to be the case of clerical error. The RIAA was formed in 1952 but didn’t create the Gold standard until 1958, the year that Concert by the Sea made enough of a profit and sold enough copies to be considered a Gold album. It appears that the record was denied Gold certification because, well, it was simply overlooked.

Concert by the Sea’s lack of Gold recognition is the perfect example of why historical recordings are so important, and why the Historical Album Grammy is so significant. We have to build a bridge between music’s great albums and the world’s new listeners. Like the RIAA, I was completely unaware of Erroll Garner’s prolific piano career and of the sheer brilliance of his performance in Carmel-by-the-Sea over 60 years ago. Sony Legacy’s reissue of these recordings gives me the chance to finally experience this record and, even better, to do so with a more authentic remaster than has ever been offered.


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