Erroll Garner documentary/singer-pianist Champian Fulton
Maybe it was just the odd hour (11:30 on a beautiful Saturday morning), or the lack of outreach to the jazz community, but fewer than ten people were in the house for the Northampton Film Festival’s local premier of Erroll Garner: No One Can Hear You Read. A turnout like that would have been a drag for Erroll, who explained that his genius was fired by the audiences who packed clubs and concert halls worldwide to hear his astonishing pianistics. “I always play for my audience,” Garner told Art Taylor in Notes and Tones. “I can’t play to empty tables and chairs.”
The title of Atticus Brady’s film, taken from one of Garner’s apothegms, refers to his inability to read music. But this hardly detracted from his skill as a pianist, or as the composer of "Misty" and a handful of other beautiful songs. Steve Allen, who often hosted Garner on his television show, hails the “freakish degree of his superiority” over other pianists, and says, “Those of us who do this for a living know that some of what he did was impossible. But he did it.”
Woody Allen, another fan, says that Garner’s playing was imbued with a feeling of emotional uplift; as an example, Brady incorporates a scene from an Allen movie in which a newborn is being lowered into a stroller and all one hears is Erroll, no dialogue needed. Maurice Hines, who recommends Garner’s music to tap dancers at every skill level, says "he was a genius who drew you to him.”
Garner was Johnny Carson’s favorite jazz pianist. In a scene from one of the dozens of appearances he made on the Tonight Show, Carson asks him, "What makes you so distinct and instantly recognizable?" As Erroll searches for something to say, Johnny turns and asks, "Ross, what would you say it is?" Tonight Show pianist Ross Tompkins replies, "Happiness."
Happy is the overall mood of No One Can Hear You Read, but Garner’s story has its poignant elements. His sister Marion relates how she was working as a domestic and could hear a recording of Erroll playing in the background. The lady of the house came to her holding Concert By the Sea and asked if she knew of the pianist whose name she shared? It was the first time Sis had heard Erroll’s biggest-selling LP. And while Garner never married, he fathered a girl who admits that he didn’t pay much attention to her, but she's sure that "In his heart, he loved me.”
In 1956, Garner, who was the sole client of his personal manager Martha Glaser, became the first jazz artist to be booked by the classical music impresario Sol Hurok. Jazz critic John Murph describes this as a “Jackie Robinson step” for blacks in show business. Ahmad Jamal, who, like Garner, is one of the piano greats born in Pittsburgh, says that the elfin Erroll “was a giant even without the phone books.” Garner famously sat on a Manhattan phone directory to give himself a boost on the piano bench.
Garner has become something of a neglected figure since his death in 1977, but it doesn’t take more than a few bars of his music to feel its irresistible pull. Happily, there are a few pianists on the scene who still bring him to mind, among them Champian Fulton. When I first heard the Oklahoma native a few years ago at Eagle Hill in Hardwick, I mentioned hearing a Garnerism or two in her playing, and she just beamed. I heard Fulton again last week at her recording session at Systems Two in Brooklyn. She’s working on a new release for Sharp Nine, and in the hour I was there she laid down Bud Powell’s gorgeous original “Celia,” and sang Cole Porter's “It’s All Right With Me” and Harry Warren's "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," with Eric Alexander guesting on tenor saxophone. Here’s my vote for all three making the final cut on the CD.
(photo by Steven Sussman)
Champian is performing at Japanalia in Hartford on Saturday. Here's the preview Owen McNally wrote for the Hartford Courant last Sunday. And here she is at the Clifford Brown Jazz Festival in 2010 performing "Tea for Two."