Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to an African American family in 1923, Erroll began playing piano at the age of three. He attended George Westinghouse High School, as did fellow pianists Billy Strayhorn and Ahmad Jamal. Garner was self-taught and remained an “ear player” all his life – he never learned to read music. At the age of seven, Garner began appearing on the radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh with a group called the Candy Kids. By the age of 11, he was playing on the Allegheny riverboats. At 14 in 1937, he joined local saxophonist Leroy Brown.
He played locally in the shadow of his older pianist brother Linton Garner and moved to New York in 1944. He briefly worked with the bassist Slam Stewart, and though not a bebop musician per se, in 1947 played with Charlie Parker on the famous “Cool Blues” session. Although his admission to the Pittsburgh music union was initially refused because of his inability to read music, they eventually relented in 1956 and made him an honorary member. Garner is credited with having a superb memory of music. After attending a concert by the Russian classical pianist Emil Gilels, Garner returned to his apartment and was able to play a large portion of the performed music by recall.
Short in stature (5 foot 2 inches), Garner performed sitting on multiple telephone directories, except when playing in New York City, where a Manhattan phone book was sufficient. He was also known for his occasional vocalizations while playing, which can be heard on many of his recordings. He helped to bridge the gap for jazz musicians between nightclubs and the concert hall.
Until his death from a cardiac arrest on January 2, 1977, he made many tours both at home and abroad, and produced a large volume of recorded work. Garner is buried in Pittsburgh’s Homewood Cemetery. He was, reportedly, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson’s favorite jazz musician; Garner appeared on Carson’s show many times over the years.
Called “one of the most distinctive of all pianists” by jazz writer Scott Yanow, Garner showed that a “creative jazz musician can be very popular without watering down his music” or changing his personal style. He is referred to as a “brilliant virtuoso who sounded unlike anyone else”, using an “orchestral approach straight from the swing era but …open to the innovations of bop.” Garner’s ear and technique owed as much to practice as to a natural gift. His distinctive style could swing like no other, but some of his best recordings are ballads, such as his best-known composition, “Misty”. “Misty” rapidly became a jazz standard – and was famously featured in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty for Me (1971).
Garner may have been inspired by the example of Earl Hines, a fellow Pittsburgh resident but 18 years his senior, and there were resemblances in their elastic approach to timing and the use of the right-hand octaves. As it is especially shown by Garner’s early recordings, another clear influence on him was the stride piano style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. His definitive style, though, was unique and had neither obvious forerunners nor imitators. A key factor in his sound was the independence of his hands (hands with thick, stubby fingers, typically deemed unsuitable for piano playing).
Garner would often play behind or ahead of the beat with his right hand while his springy left hand rocked steady, creating insouciance and tension in the music, which he would resolve by bringing the timing back into sync. The independence of his hands also was evidenced by his masterful use of three against four figures and more complicated cross rhythms between the hands.
Most of his recordings were in trio format comprising piano, bass and drums. Unlike other jazz trios however, the volume of the drums and bass was very subdued.
What makes Garner’s playing easy to recognize is his trademark introductions, which seem to make no sense until breaking dramatically into his exposition of the tune. Sometimes cacophonous and at other times strange, his intros produced a sense of excitement and anticipation and humor. One of the more important aspects of his style of improvisation was that it generally stayed close to the melodic theme and the novelty lay in voicings.
Garner bridged the gap between stride and straight-ahead styles. Often identified as a stride player, his right hand had the trappings of modernity, elements of Nat Cole and Teddy Wilson delineations. With hands barely reaching an octave, he came to define a medium filled with technical prowess on his own terms. His style might best be described as orchestral, as his creations often maintained the energy and diversity of an entire band.
Garner’s first recordings were made in late 1944 at the apartment of Timme Rosenkrantz; these were subsequently issued as the five-volume Overture to Dawn series on Blue Note Records. His recording career advanced in the late 1940s when several sides such as “Fine and Dandy” and “Sweet ‘n’ Lovely” were cut. However, his 1955 live album Concert by the Sea was a best-selling jazz album in its day and features Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums. This recording of a performance at the Sunset Center, a former church in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, that was to be shared with Korean War veterans at a nearby army base, was made using relatively primitive sound equipment, but for George Avakian the decision to release the recording was easy. Other notable works include 1951’s Long Ago and Far Away and 1974’s Magician, both of which see Garner perform a number of classic standards in his own style. Often the trio was expanded to add Latin percussion, usually a conga, with electric results.
In 1964, Garner appeared in the UK on the music series Jazz 625 (625 referring to the PAL 625-line format) broadcast on the BBC’s new second channel. The programme was hosted by Steve Race, who introduced Garner’s trio with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Kelly Martin on drums. While working the keyboard hard, Garner had perspiration streaming down his face as the programme made close shots of his hands.