Monday, January 02, 2012

`To Keep the Narrative Going Along'

Back to Houston today after two and a half weeks in the rain. Travel once felt like discovery, something new around every corner. Some of that sense of adventure remains, but travel also means leg cramps and proximity to witless conversation. Departures spell sadness, the glum knowledge that something has concluded and assumed its place in memory, so I always fortify myself with buoyancy wherever I can find it, just as I pack my suitcase. In the car on Saturday I heard Sinatra’s recording of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” lyrics by Dorothy Fields:

“Some day, when I'm awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you...
And the way you look tonight.”

This is not world-weary Sinatra, nor Sinatra the swaggering hedonist, but a character more seasoned, more tempered and more like the rest of us. It’s a great recording, superior even to Fred Astaire’s, Billie Holiday’s, Benny Goodman’s and Peggy Lee’s, but for me the song belongs to Erroll Garner, king of buoyancy. This recording dates from 1949.

Garner represents a species of artist nearing dodo-like extinction. Above all, he wants to please listeners, not baffle or intimidate them. His aim is pleasure. He titled a 1956 album The Most Happy Piano. Garner reminds us that jazz is about the joyful, painful and unexpected -- that is, life. Whitney Balliett titled his profile of Garner “Being a Genius,” and while describing the pianist’s appearance, hints at the source of his appeal:

“Garner was short and was shaped like a wedge. He had fullback shoulders and long arms. His hands were rangy and long-fingered and loose. They moved like thieves on the keyboard. He wore his hair patent-leather style, and he had a narrow face and a beaked nose. He looked like a pirate. He had a blue-black beard and a huge brush mustache and heavy lidded eyes. When he played, his music was refracted through his face and body. His body kept time. He gave ecstatic smiles, popped his eyes, made `O’s with his mouth, and peered crazily at his sidemen, his eyes half shut with delight. All the while, he issued a stream of loud basso-profundo rhythmic grunts.”

“Ecstatic.” “Delight.” On Sunday, while preparing for today’s flight and puttering around the house, I listened to Garner, actively listened, not as one plays background music to fill the silence. What Kingsley Amis says of Henry Fielding can justly be said of Garner:

“Apart from his wit, and, I think, attractive though sometimes heavy irony, he seems to be very concerned not to bore the reader, to keep the narrative going along.”

Garner died on this date in 1977 at age fifty-three.


Terry Teachout said...

I, too, am a passionate Garner fan:

Anonymous said...

And I am a passionate jazz, Teachout and Kurp fan! Didn't know we shared a love for this music.

Fran Manushkin said...

"Concert by the Sea" was one of the first jazz albums I bought. I still love it and Garner.