Erroll Garner Dazzles on Centennial Collection

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​In popular arts, reputations have a shelf life, writes John McDonough. This box set aims to extend Erroll Garner’s.

(Photo: Courtesy Octave Recordings)

Last fall, in partnership with the Mack Avenue Music Group, the Erroll Garner Project marshaled a holiday-season blockbuster — Liberation In Swing: Centennial Collection. The deluxe version is a limited edition of 300 that includes three vinyl LPs of Garner’s unreleased 1959 Symphony Hall concert in Boston plus CD versions of the dozen Garner albums recorded by Octave and licensed to various labels between 1961 and 1977.

“We’ve added one new track to each album while maintaining the original format and sequence of the originals,” said Peter Lockhart, senior producer of Octave Recordings, which created the Garner package in partnership with the Mack Avenue label. “Eight of the 12 CDs feature an original Garner composition never released before. And the 10 studio recordings are also collected on separate white vinyl ‘Sessions’ LPs that are part of the deluxe set.” There is also an appropriately sumptuous book of essays and photos.

“Each deluxe set comes with a box of five 45 rpm discs discovered in Erroll’s archive a couple of years ago,” Lockhart said. “They were prepared as disk jockey promotional samples in 1967, but apparently never distributed. We found only 300 sets, which is why the deluxe set is limited.” They are not reproductions, he emphasized, but the real thing. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

For less extravagant budgets, the Liberation In Swing package is also available in a standard edition, without the 45 rpm promo samples, for $149.98. And the Symphony Hall Concert is available in abridged form on CD and vinyl for $11.99 and $27.98, respectively.

Garner’s florid romanticism spoke to popular audiences as directly as his light, aerodynamic whimsy swept up jazz listeners. At Columbia Records in the 1950s, he was produced by both Mitch Miller and George Avakian. The elements of his style — the effusively misleading overtures, the lagging just behind the beat — were so particular to him, pianists resisted his influence out of fear of imitation.

Nor was he influenced by his peers, most of whom built a single solo chorus by chorus. Garner packed a beginning, middle and climax into a single chorus, then started all over again. Each was a complete short story. In 1946, Garner placed ninth in the DownBeat Readers Poll. By 1950, he was No. 1. “He found his following,” wrote Dan Morgenstern in 1974, “without ever having compromised his art.”

Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, helped make him one of the few jazz musicians of the post-World War II period to achieve a level of fame and wealth commensurate with his unique talent. But Glaser’s negotiating methods were forged during the labor wars of the 1930s in places like Pittsburgh and Detroit, where the rules of engagement were tough, and money was always job one.

Partnering with Garner in the early ’50s, she used that toughness on his behalf, fashioning a pioneering business structure around him and seeing that he received every cent he earned. She formed Octave Publishing to manage his compositions and put him in the care of concert impresario Sol Hurok.

Glaser understood Garner’s value and made certain that anyone she did business with understood it too … or else. In 1960, she sued Columbia Records, winning a $265,000 settlement after the label issued what she claimed were unauthorized performances. In that same year she formed Octave Music to produce and license Garner recording projects to partnering labels.

Glaser and Garner were born six months apart in 1921. But Garner died in 1977 at 55, while Glaser lived to nearly 94, passing in 2014. After guiding Garner’s career for nearly 25 years, she would spend the next 37 managing his legacy. Always looking for the best terms, she avoided a monogamous label relationship and licensed Octave-produced sessions to MGM, London and even Reprise, none of which had strong jazz brands. After Garner’s death in 1977, fewer albums and reissues appeared, often because of ownership ambiguities that she had raised.

By the ’80s, all the seminal Columbia sessions produced by Avakian were off the market. Some years later, Mosaic Records tried to mount a complete Columbia set but couldn’t get it past Glaser. Garner is the only major jazz icon without the imprimatur of a Mosaic collection.

In the popular arts, reputations, particularly posthumous ones, have a shelf life and demand frequent upkeep and investment. The deeper history sets in, the more time diminishes the value of cultural assets. The recently deceased George Wein summed up the Garner dilemma in his 2003 autobiography Myself Among Others: “Garner was a true original. … For reasons I do not understand, [he] seems to have been forgotten by younger jazz critics and pianists alike.”

He was forgotten because the collective memory is as crowded as it is short. A legacy needs strong advocacy.

“I think that’s right,” said Peter Lockhart, senior producer of Octave Recordings. “And that’s the effort we’re engaged in now with the Erroll Garner Project, to reinvigorate his musical and cultural legacy.” Lockhart is part of a new, more strategic generation of Octave management, which took over when Octave was reformed in 2015 after Glaser’s death. Headed by Susan Rosenberg, Glaser’s niece and heir to the Garner archive (now housed at the University of Pittsburgh), Octave first partnered with Columbia Records for the release of a restored and “complete” Concert By The Sea, the 1956 release that became the largest-selling jazz album in history to that time. The joint Octave-Sony venture came out six years ago as a three-CD box set and doubled the length of the original album.

The sheer size of this new Octave–Mack Avenue collaboration will draw attention to itself and, more importantly, to Erroll Garner. Perhaps, with enough flexibility from the artist’s estate, it will jump-start momentum for other reissues — like another Mosaic run at the complete Avakian Columbias — because Garner still dazzles when you can hear him. DB




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