Jazz musician Erroll Garner's materials donated to Pitt library
The man who wrote the music to the song “Misty” is long gone, but his legacy will live in his hometown.
The professional materials of internationally renowned jazz pianist Erroll Garner, an East Liberty native who died in 1977, have been donated to the University of Pittsburgh Library System by the estate of Martha Glaser, Mr. Garner’s longtime agent and manager and a civil-rights advocate who also grew up in Pittsburgh.
The announcement was made today, which would have been Mr. Garner’s 94th birthday. He died of lung cancer at age 55 and is buried in Homewood Cemetery.
“He was one of the major pianists in the history of jazz, and so by definition this is an important acquisition,” said Bill Kirchner, author of the “Oxford Companion to Jazz,” who noted that Mr. Garner was self-taught. “What is amazing is he couldn’t read a word of music. Everything he did was totally by ear.”
After graduating from Westinghouse High School, Mr. Garner left for New York City in 1944. Ten years later, he composed the music to “Misty,” his most well-known ballad, which was recorded by Johnny Mathis in 1954, becoming his signature song.
The donated materials include correspondence, performance and recording contracts, photographs, sheet music, awards and sound and video recordings. They also include such memorabilia as a cocktail napkin with a sketch of Mr. Garner made in a Paris jazz club and a telephone book. Under his contract with Sol Hurok, a fabled impresario and producer in the mid-20th century, Mr. Garner insisted on a telephone directory for the New York City borough of Manhattan that he could sit on while playing because of his short stature, Mr. Kirchner said.
Mr. Garner was 5 feet 2 inches tall, and his small hands meant he could barely span an octave on the keyboard.
Also to mark Mr. Garner’s birthday, Sony Legacy is expected to announce the release of a new Garner album called “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” which is co-produced by Pitt’s jazz studies director and pianist, Geri Allen. It will feature 11 unreleased tracks and interviews.
According to a release from the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Garner began playing piano at age 3 and played by ear all of his life. By age 7, he performed on KDKA radio with a group called the Kan-D-Kids, and by the time he was a teenager he played on Pittsburgh riverboats and with the Leroy Brown Orchestra.
After moving to New York City, he played at the Three Deuces with Slam Stewart, guitarist Johnny Collings and drummer Harold West.
A year after composing “Misty,” Mr. Garner released a live album in 1955, “Concert by the Sea,” which became one of the best-selling jazz releases.
He continued through two more decades of releasing albums, writing musical scores for film and stage productions and touring the country and world.
In the 1960s, he wrote the scores for films including “A New Kind of Love,” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and released several successful albums.
In the 1970s, Mr. Garner continued touring and wrote scores for films, ballets and Broadway musicals. His song “Misty” was featured in the 1971 film “Play Misty for Me,” starring Clint Eastwood and Jessica Walter.
Steven Smallovitz, spokesman for the Glaser estate, said in the Pitt news release that the university is the appropriate place for the Erroll Garner Archive because both Mr. Garner and Ms. Glaser were from Pittsburgh and because of the “long and marvelous history of black music and jazz that originated in Pittsburgh.”
Mary Niederberger, email@example.com, 412-263-1590. Mackenzie Carpenter also contributed to this story.