Friday, July 20, 2012

Free Improvisation Series: Erroll Garner

(Blogger is having some formatting issues. This post looks much worse when it's published than it looks while I'm editing it. My apologies for the "wall of text" look. I will try to improve it.)

Pianist Erroll Garner (June 15, 1921 – Jan. 2, 1977) is well-known for his dexterous piano playing and creative interpretations of standards. He is the author of the jazz standards “Gaslight” and “Misty”, and is also the first jazz pianist known to have recorded free-form improvisations.

Garner grew up in Pittsburgh, PA where he played solo piano on riverboats, silent movie theaters, and organ at churches. From 1938-1941 he played with the Leroy Brown Orchestra. In 1944, when Garner was 23 years old, he moved from Pittsburgh to New York City and found steady work on 52nd Street.1 While working as the intermission pianist at Tondaleyo's, he attracted the notice of Timme Rosenkrantz, a Danish baron who had been living in New York City since 1936. Rosenkrantz founded the Danish journal Jazzrevy (Jazz Review), becoming the first European journalist to write about Harlem jazz. Rosenkrantz also made forays into radio, hosting Rhythm is my Business on WNEW in 1944. He also operated the Mel-O-Dee Music Shop from 1940-1941. His involvement in the jazz community gained him respect from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other major figures.

Rosenkrantz with Louis Armstrong. Photo credit unknown.
In his memoirs, Rosenkrantz wrote that “quite often, after the clubs closed, musicians would come to my place and jam until sunrise. A lot of wonderful music was played and recorded in that old brownstone...”2 Trumpeter Bobby Pratt remembers these afternoon sessions:

[Rosenkrantz] used to invite musicians over to his house [an apartment at 7 West 46th Street in New York]3 … He had a lot of very good musicians. And at the same time he would be recording these sessions that we had. And Stuff Smith always used to be there. And Bill Coleman, Al Hall, Erroll Garner was there quite a bit, Lucky Thompson, and George Wettling, and Barney Bigard … we used to do those things every Saturday for quite a while … I made quite a few sessions. And it was a lot of fun.”4

Rosenkrantz made dozens of recordings of these jam sessions with his home record cutter, in the mid-1940's. In addition to the musicians mentioned by Pratt, Stuff Smith, Don Byas, Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Duke Ellington can also be heard on these recordings. Between October and December 1944, Garner recorded many pieces, mostly solo, including jazz standards like “I Hear A Rhapsody”, “I Got Rhythm” and “Yesterdays”.5 Not limited to three-and-a-half minutes, and not needing to “play the room” (a colloquial phrase for crowd-pleasing), Garner completely reconstructs these pieces in elaborate (and occassionally experimental) fantasias. Take for instance the musical passage beginning around 4:10 on “I Got Rhythm”: Garner leaves the form behind to develop a whole-tone motive over an altered F7 chord, returning to the form at 4:40. The section does not fit neatly into 4- or 8- bar phrases, and seems briefly to take on a life of its own.

During these sessions, Garner also recorded several pieces which were completely improvised. These pieces are generally quite long, and use many of the same formal techniques which Garner used when interpreting the standards and original tunes, except that there are no prefabricated themes to which Garner is bound; he makes them up on the spot, and is free to leave them when he wishes. Because of Garner's penchant for coming up with strong melodies, the free improvisations are at times not easily distinguishable from his original compositions. Indeed, at least one of the themes from the improvisations would later be “solidified” into the tune “Gaslight”. Because he did not read music, Garner used these recordings as a way of documenting his ideas, and played many of them as fully-formed jazz tunes at an important concert at Times Hall on December 20th, 1944.6 There will be much more about this concert in my next post.

The fact remains that Garner improvised many of the pieces on the Rosenkrantz recordings, nearly from scratch. And while Garner's improvisations do not ever really embrace the new tonal explorations of 20th century composers like Leo Ornstein, Anton Webern, or Igor Stravinsky,7 but this does not mean that Garner was using improvisation as a parlor trick to entertain the audience. It is just as likely that Garner simply did not like that kind of music, and so saw no reason to incorporate it into his playing style. Many of the recordings from the Rosenkrantz sessions were released by Blue Note in the early 1950’s as the five-volume Overture to Dawn. They featured liner notes by Leonard Feather, who described the improvised pieces:
The cover to Volume 1 of Overture to Dawn, Blue Note LP 500
Night after night [Garner] came back [to the Rosenkrantz apartment], playing long, rambling ad lib concertos. On these discs they have titles […] but in fact they were being composed while they were played, and the next morning Erroll could not have repeated any of them. They had no titles, no set form, yet they have a greater variety and continuity of mood, a truer ring of artistry, than almost any of the commercially recorded sides of later years … Here is a man sitting down at a piano and, to all intents and purposes, playing to and for himself; quietly, contemplatively and with a serene beauty.”8

Within a year, Garner was featured on a radio program called the Twelve Eighty Club, where he was asked by the host to improvise a piece on the spot, called the “Twelve Eighty Club Blues”. Garner then plays a 32-bar piece which appears to have been completely improvised. Although the radio host is clearly putting him to the test, Garner is doing more than just a parlor trick. Putting a free improvisation into the container of a 32-bar popular song form poses a very different mental/musical challenge than interpreting a pre-composed tune, even as liberally as Garner does.

There is one interesting exception to either the pre-composed and the free improvised piece. Later on in the Twelve Eighty Club show, Garner states that he will play an excerpt of a “kind of a concerto” which he had written. The program's host suggests the Garner play the whole thing later in the show, and Garner responds that he “can't recollect the whole thing”, but that he calls it “The Mood”. The host suggests that Garner call it the “Forgotten Concerto”, and this is the title given to the piece on the 2002 CD release.9 The Rosenkrantz recordings contain a piece called “Erroll's Concerto” which begins in essentially the same way, (dissonant and angular melodic intervals over a brooding Db/C# minor tonic) but mostly follows a different course.

Without more recordings of or statements about “The Mood”, it's difficult to draw more precise conclusions. But given the uncanny similarities in how they start, I think it's appropriate to view these two tracks as different versions of the same “piece”, even if the piece was just an general idea based in C# minor tonality. Based on the two examples that we have, it makes sense to suppose that once this general idea was established, Garner allowed himself to be open to the influence of whatever “mood” he was in at the time.

This is certainly in keeping with the following characterization of Garner by his contemporary George Shearing:

"Erroll was so spontaneous in his playing that sometimes it would hamper him to have an orchestra behind him, because he may not necessarily remember what chord he'd been playing when the orchestrations were made or may not care to remember even. If we were describing it verbally he probably would be saying, 'What I'm saying today has no bearing on what I said last week.' Sometimes an orchestration behind him would be like fetters around his neck, because this would potentially limit the full degree of spontaneity that Erroll may have … He preferred to remain his good old free self, and as I say, it's not a critical comment. It is a comment of a different approach in that any time any orchestration is put behind somebody who craves that degree of freedom relentlessly, sometimes it's better that orchestration not be employed then, and keep the fetters away from him."10
Garner's Afternoon of an Elf. Mercury Records, 1955

After these early recordings, most of Garner's discography consists of performances of standards and original compositions. One exception is on 1955's Afternoon of an Elf, which features a free improvisation among many standards. The anonymous liner note author writes that “[The track 'All My Loves Are You'] is 'composed' only in the strict etymological sense of that word, i.e. put together; in the conventional sense of the word it was not composed at all, for Erroll improvised it casually in the course of the session, just as he ad libs most of his original work.”11 Garner takes a simple melodic theme, and interprets it in a number of different keys, beginning in C, tonicizing E and Ab and others, eventually ending in Eb.

These recordings indicate that Erroll Garner was an improviser of unusual stature. These, along with the recordings of Stuff Smith and Robert Crum (which I will write about next) are among the earliest recorded examples of freely improvised music from the jazz idiom. As more and more recordings appear, I'm starting to think that this kind of completely improvised musicmaking was altogether common, not at the clubs, but in afterhours jam sessions like those at the Rosenkrantz apartment. The differences between these recordings and the early music of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor are many, and the next essay I'll write will shine some more light on the 1940's, a forgotten part of free jazz history.


1 Feather, Leonard and Ira Gitler. "The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz", pp. 245-246
2 Rosenkrantz, Timme and Fradley Garner. "Harlem Jazz Adventures: A European Baron's Memoir, 1934-1969", p. 170
3 Barnett, Anthony. "Desert Sands: the Recordings & Performances of Stuff Smith", p. 121
4 Barnett, 127
5 Rosenkrantz, 177
6 Ibid.
7 As noted by a review of the Dec. 20th, 1944 concert, Mercure wrote that “The New Jazz had apparently only caught up with Debussy, for that was as far as … Errol [sic] Garner, new piano “find”, went.” Modern Music,vol. 22 no. 2, Jan-Feb 1945, p. 139
8 Feather, Blue Note 5007-5008
9 Erroll Garner, Solo in New York 1944-45, Acrobat ACRCD 134
10 Shearing, interviewed by Clausen. Available online at Accessed July 7, 2012
11 Uncredited author, Mercury MG20090

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