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Erroll Garner’s Magic Shone Bright On ‘Magician’

Read The Liner Notes For This Month’s Classics Record Of The Month

On April 27, 2020

Few albums are more aptly named than Magician. Over the course of five decades, Erroll Garner stood out as an unparalleled keyboard prestidigitator whose whole life was built on doing things that seemed impossible to mere mortals.

The wizardry was evident almost from the moment this future jazz star left the cradle. Born in Pittsburgh in 1921, Garner allegedly started playing piano at age three, just by sitting down and doing it. His radio career began at the age of seven — a time when most youngsters can’t even spell P-I-A-N-O, let alone earn a living playing it. In fact, Garner’s career advanced so quickly that he just bypassed formal music education and went directly to the bandstand.

As documented in the 1967 cover story from DownBeat Magazine, Garner was “one of those rare birds in this business known as ‘naturals.’” Interviewers repeatedly asked him about his self-declared lack of ability to read music. “No one can hear you read” was Garner’s oft-quoted rejoinder.

Perhaps his most significant triumph, however, was one that most of his audience never knew about. Erroll Garner was the first American musician to successfully sue and win a lawsuit against a major label. It took three years of litigation — including defense against a countersuit from Columbia Records — before the New York Supreme Court ruled that the label had violated the terms of his contract.

Garner asked his lawyer to keep this legal case out of the newspapers, a striking contrast with the present day when star musicians view the court of public opinion as almost as important as a court of law. But complaining to the media was not Garner’s style, even though both he and his fans suffered from his inability to make records until the case was resolved, leaving us with a large gap in his discography at a peak period for his artistry and popularity.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed as if everybody was an Erroll Garner fan, so much so that some record stores even removed his albums from the jazz bins and relocated them to the “pop pianists” section where they could reach a larger mainstream audience. It made zero sense — no keyboardist was jazzier than Erroll Garner — but this move testified to his ability to overcome audience preconceptions just as he had triumphed over all the other obstacles put in his path.

Then again, the conventional genre labels never really applied to this artist, who lived and played by his own rules. Just as he successfully took on the concert hall establishment, he similarly conquered the commercial music market with his hit song “Misty” — a bestseller for Johnny Mathis, who as a teenager had heard Garner play the tune before it even had words. “Mr. Garner, I am going to record your song if I ever make a record,” the youngster promised. “Misty” not only was a pop hit for Mathis, but later made the charts in a country version by Ray Stevens, an R&B treatment from Lloyd Price, a soul reinterpretation by the group The Vibrations, as well as a funky organ rendition by Richard “Groove” Holmes. And, of course, Garner himself performed it as a romantic jazz ballad.

“Erroll was so melodic he would appeal to anyone,” jazz expert Dan Morgenstern has explained. “Without any showbiz trimmings or anything, he could just sit down at that piano in front of thousands of people and completely enrapture them.” Garner was “a great musical genius,” in the words of Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein. “Nobody will replace him or erase the distinctive mark he has made on American music,” critic Leonard Feather asserted. French jazz expert Hugues Panassié proclaimed Erroll Garner “the greatest pianist to emerge in jazz since World War II.”

But the praise that delighted Garner most came from other musicians. Mary Lou Williams, a fellow native of Pittsburgh and one of the inventors of the Kansas City jazz sound, once tried to teach Garner before realizing that “he was born with more than most musicians could accomplish in a lifetime.”

After the Columbia litigation, Garner launched his own record label, Octave, in collaboration with his longtime manager Martha Glaser. The recordings Garner made for Octave include some of the finest music of his career, with Glaser and Garner becoming innovators within the recording industry by licensing these albums to major labels to supplement the lack of distribution channels available for an independent label at the time. Although these releases saw multiple Grammy nominations and top 20 chart success, they would often go out of print and were seldom heard beyond their initial release.

Magician is my favorite of these recordings. It’s an album I have listened to over and over again, and it never loses its freshness and appeal. So much so that it’s now the first record I recommend when people ask me where to start with Erroll Garner. It’s all there — his crazy quilt of piano techniques, his unflagging energy, his grunts and exclamations (always a sign that he is playing at top form), and his larger-than-life personality.

I was a teenager when I first encountered Magician and can still remember my shock when I heard the opening track. I knew the song “(They Long to Be) Close to You” from AM radio, where it had been a hit for the Carpenters, a brother-and-sister pop duo that was about as far away from jazz fare as I could imagine. Yet Garner took this mellow pop tune and made it sound soulful in a way that just didn’t seem possible. The prestidigitator was up to his magic tricks again.

He does the same thing here with George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but in this instance he takes a 1926 song that is usually played as a introspective jazz ballad and makes it groove and strut like a breakdancer showing off all her moves. He works a similar alchemy with Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” from 1933, a song that is about nostalgia, but in Garner’s hands loses all its old-fashioned longings, and adopts a new personality, half noir and half funk.

These tracks capture the recurring paradox of Garner’s keyboard conjuring — he could perform any song you requested, but when he played these familiar songs from the past they sounded like nothing you had ever heard before.

Consider “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a 1934 love song by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, that kept returning to the charts over the next half century — in the 1950s (as a doo-wop version by The Flamingos), in the 1960s (as a two-beat pop tune by The Lettermen), and the 1970s (as a dreamy 6/8 love ballad sung by Art Garfunkel). Garner was clearly aware of this song’s long lineage; he was a great fan of popular music and paid close attention to hit songs and new styles. But when he sat down to play his own version, all these precedents were swept aside, and the end result is pure Erroll Garner, with all his trademark sounds: the freeform intro, the four-to-the-bar piano chords, the unexpected dynamic shifts, the swinging improvised lines augmented by humming from the performer. Let other musicians churn out identical cover versions night after night on the bandstand; with Garner you encounter an artisan whose handcrafted works are one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

Of course, Erroll Garner didn’t need to borrow songs from other musicians. In fact, he was a prolific composer who published nearly 200 original compositions during his lifetime with nearly as many left in his archive. His endearing “Nightwind,” featured here, is one of my favorite Garner melodies, a sweet and pensive love song in the same spirit as “Misty.” It’s featured here as an instrumental, but lyricist Marcel Stellman later added words, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday this little-known song got turned into a popular hit.

At the other end of the spectrum, Garner serves up a rootsy blues aptly called “It Gets Better Every Time” which is about as down-home as piano playing gets. “One Good Turn,” in contrast, sounds like a gospel number destined for sanctified Sunday services. And those many fans who cherish Garner’s Latin music stylings won’t be disappointed with “Mucho Gusto,” which moves between driving vamps and majestic block chord exhortations.

It’s all here in Magician, and the total package is as good an introduction to the wizardry of Garner that you will find anywhere, beautifully recorded and artfully supported by fellow sorcerers bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Grady Tate, with occasional support from Norman Gold on organ, José Mangual on congas and Jackie Williams on tambourine.

The only sad note here is that Magician marked the final studio project Erroll Garner released as an album before his death on January 2, 1977. He was only 55 years old, and still full of music. I often think of the wonders that Garner might have achieved with more years, playing with his contemporaries and the next generation, imparting to the proceedings the same free-wheeling vitality exemplified on every track here.

We will soon be celebrating the 50th anniversary of this exceptional album, and it still enchants me the same way it did when I first heard it shortly after its release. But that’s what I’ve come to expect from Erroll Garner. With the great magicians, their magic lives on.

Profile Picture of Ted Gioia
Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia is a music historian and author of 11 books, including The History of Jazz and How to Listen to Jazz.

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