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The Erroll Garner Jazz Project Restores A 'Profound Cultural Gift'

Jazz pianist Erroll Garner was well-loved in the 1950s and '60s for his energetic playing. Thanks to the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, much of his music is being restored.
Courtesy of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project
Jazz pianist Erroll Garner was well-loved in the 1950s and '60s for his energetic playing. Thanks to the Erroll Garner Jazz Project, much of his music is being restored.

In 1955, jazz pianist Erroll Garner played a concert in Carmel, Calif. When his manager spotted a tape recorder rolling backstage, she grabbed the reels and decided to release them.

The sound was lousy, yet Concert by the Sea went on to become a huge hit. Pianist Geri Allen says that's because the playing is so exuberant.

"And so after that, what we're really getting, without any barriers, is a sense of the way this man viewed the world," Allen says. "And what he wanted to give to the world, which was this wonderful energy."

Garner, who died in 1977, was popular around the world in the 1950s and '60s for his energetic playing, his swinging rhythm and his ability to improvise. He recorded hundreds of records and composed the standard "Misty." Now, a new archive — and a reissue of his best-selling album — have revived interest in his life and career.

Allen is one of the producers of the expanded and remastered recording of the album, called The Complete Concert by the Sea. It includes 11 unreleased tunes that were discovered on tapes in a huge archive of Garner's memorabilia.

Garner's manager, Martha Glaser, was executor of the pianist's estate. When Glaser died two years ago, her niece, Susan Rosenberg, inherited the archive.

"This was like a gift," she says. "A profound cultural gift."

She used the royalties from Garner's most famous composition, "Misty," to fund The Erroll Garner Jazz Project. Garner himself grew up in Pittsburgh and was completely self-taught — but when he became hugely popular in the late 1950s, critics began to dismiss him as a sellout. Rosenberg says the project aims to rectify that view.

"We came together to invigorate Erroll's musical legacy," she says, "to try to put him back into the canon of great jazz pianists of the 20th century and to support community-based jazz projects."

Steve Rosenthal is the owner of The Magic Shop, the Soho recording studio where hundreds of Garner's newly discovered recordings are being digitized and remastered. He has recordings of dating back to the 1930s; one of the earliest, from 1937, features Garner in the band at Heid Studios in Pittsburgh. It's a cover of a very popular song from that era, "Exactly Like You."

Erroll Garner was only 16 years old on that session. It was found among tapes with thousands of items that sat for decades in nine storage containers in New York City. Ethnomusicologist Jocelyn Arem spent the last two years sorting through the material and preparing it for donation to the University of Pittsburgh.

"This archive is extremely unique for the fact that it spans his entire career," Arem says. "There's everything from photographs to original tapes to his clothing — like his ties. So it really gives you a sense of who he was, where he was and what he was performing at that time."

Garner never learned to read music, but he had an extraordinary ear and ability to improvise. In a 1962 interview found the archive and labeled simply "CBS Radio," a host tells Garner he's heard the pianist can compose tune at the drop of the hat. Garner replies, "I have tried, and I'm pretty sure I can. "

For all of his virtuosity, Garner also understood that being popular meant connecting with his audience. He said, "I like to play what people want to hear."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale