One assumes anything popular must be rubbish, and one would be wrong, sometimes. Some artists are doubly gifted, with brilliance and a flare for dignified accessibility, permitting snobs and slobs alike to enjoy themselves without fear of embarrassment. In literature, Exhibit A is Shakespeare; in painting, Edward Hopper; in music, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller – and Erroll Garner. Concert by the Sea, recorded by Garner at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, in 1955, was released as an LP the following year and by 1961 had sold more than half a million copies. By the time I bought the album in 1970, it was a certified bestseller, a standard feature of record collections even among listeners otherwise indifferent to jazz (not unlike what Kind of Blue is today). With Art Tatum and Bill Evans, he remains my favorite pianist.
For Christmas I received the expanded, three-CD edition put out this year by Sony Legacy, re-mastered with eleven previously unreleased tracks. It’s a feast. We receive Garner’s performance in the same spirit in which he delivered it – joyously. In his Wall Street Journal review of the expanded Concert by the Sea, Marc Myers writes, “Live performances gave Garner time to transform songs into wedding cakes of cascading melodies and rococo harmonies.” Garner, a virtuoso, is not merely showing off. Accompanied by bassist Eddie Calhoun and drummer Denzil Best, he's an artist in ideal balance with his gifts and his audience – the rarest of artistic events. The passage quoted at the top is from the tribute Whitney Balliett wrote for Garner in 1977 (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000), when the pianist died at age fifty-three. Balliett paints a portrait of a pure and independent artist:
“He was self-taught, he never learned to read music, and, like all masterly folk artists, he developed a style of such originality and presence that it became nearly autonomous. One bar was enough to identify him, and his style was so persuasive, and pervasive, that he influenced older pianists (Earl Hines), pianists of his own generation (Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Red Garland), and pianists of the next generation (Cecil Taylor). Garner never finished high school, and he was untroubled by the lapses of confidence and invention which academic training often instills.”
[For a look at Garner in action, see this performance of “Misty,” his best-known composition. Also see Whitney Balliett’s 1982 profile of Garner, “Being a Genius.” And consider this observation from the pianist, courtesy of Jerry Jazz Musician: “I get ideas from everything. A big color, the sound of water and wind, or a flash of something cool. Playing is like life. Either you feel it or you don’t.”]