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Christian Sands & the Legacy of Erroll Garner

Estate for legendary pianist launches extensive reissue series through Mack Avenue

Christian Sands, backstage at Newport Jazz Festival 2019 (photo by Mark Robbins)
Christian Sands, backstage at Newport Jazz Festival 2019 (photo: Mark Robbins)

When Geri Allen first contacted Christian Sands about performing the music of Erroll Garner in a tribute to Concert by the Sea at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2015, Sands didn’t know a lot about the pianist other than his influence.

“I knew his playing, I knew the comping thing,” he says, sitting backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival after a performance paying tribute to Garner. “As a pianist, Erroll is such a force and somebody that, just being a jazz pianist, you kind of go through automatically, whether you know it’s him or not. He came through other people as well, but also the way he used the piano was really just the perfect way to use it. The comping, the playing of the solo, the rhythm aspect of it, the swing aspect of it, the double-time stops, the doubling in the right hand with the octaves.” But his sole direct exposure to Garner came from tapes that mentors like Dr. Billy Taylor gave him which included a cut or two of Garner, right next to a cut of someone like Grover Washington, Jr.

See here for the track premiere of Garner’s “The Best Things in Life Are Free” 

In the preparation for that concert at Monterey four years ago, Allen gave Sands a crash course in Garner’s music. “I used to listen to Dr. Billy Taylor talk about Erroll Garner too, but it was never in depth until I met with Geri Allen and we were preparing for the concert,” he explains. “We sat together in a practice room together somewhere in New York. We had two pianos and we were going through Concert by the Sea and just listening to each detail of him, and also listening to Geri talk about Erroll and what she took away from him, and how he comped and how he forms his chords or his left hand. We just dove into the music and I was involved ever since.”

Christian Sands and Geri Allen performing the music of Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo by Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)
Christian Sands and Geri Allen performing the music of Erroll Garner’s Concert by the Sea at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo by Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

Indeed, since that performance of Garner’s Concert by the Sea with Allen at Monterey, Sands has learned a great deal more about the pianist. He recently became the creative ambassador for Garner’s estate which has launched an ambitious schedule of album releases and other content for 2019 and 2020. The Mack Avenue Music Group is partnering with Garner’s estate and Octave Music to create the Octave Remastered Series, consisting of 12 albums over the course of a year, featuring newly restored editions of Garner recordings from the 60s and 70s. Among the Garner reissues already on the market are The Complete Concert by the Sea, Ready Take One and Nightconcert, but only the last is part of the Octave Remastered series. The first four titles in the new series – Dreamstreet, Closeup in Swing, One World Concert and A New Kind of Love – will be released on Sep. 27, with subsequent albums coming out one per month. They’ve also got a podcast hosted by author Robin Kelley who will interview a different musician each month tied to the releases. Among the artists already on board for those sessions are Jason Moran, Chick Corea and Eric Reed. The Octave Remastered Series leads up to the kick-off of Garner’s Centennial year celebration, which begins in June 2020 and concludes on his 100th birthday in June 2021. 

The original plan was for Allen and Sands to share stewardship of Garner’s music with Sands focusing on the youth aspects or impact of the work. However, Allen’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer in 2017 changed that script. “I went to the hospice I think the day before she passed away and we were talking about Erroll and playing some records, and just listening to some things,” he recalls. “A couple of weeks after that I got a call from Peter Lockhart and Susan Rosenberg [of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project] and they asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. They had had a conversation with Geri ahead of time.”

The torch had been passed and Sands began his own re-education. It began with the archives themselves. When Garner died in 1977, he left his entire catalog and all of his publishing to his manager and business partner, Martha Glaser, who did her best for the ensuing three decades to keep Garner’s legacy alive. When she died in 2014, she left it all to her niece who contacted Allen who was then head of the jazz department at the University of Pittsburgh. The niece donated the archive to the school, but the estate retained all the copyrights. The archive includes more than a million pieces of paper and 7,000 reels of tape.

Lockhart attributes the licensing deal in the record business to Garner and his successful fight with Columbia Records. “From 1960 on, he owned everything he ever played and kept those masters, and then would license them to labels to release,” says Lockhart.  “He really was one of the inventors of the licensing deal. It wasn’t happening really until Erroll did it.” Garner battled with Columbia over the release of an album in 1960 without his approval and according to Lockhart, it was the first time in history that an artist compelled a label to remove a record from the marketplace through the courts. Glaser and Garner founded Octave Music for his recordings which were then licensed to Columbia and other labels.

Sands sees that accomplishment as all the more remarkable because of the context. “The amazing thing is, he had a fight with Columbia Records and won,” says Sands. “It’s an African-American entertainer with a Jewish woman by his side and they beat Columbia Records. Already the story is so intense and amazing. And the fact that after that, he owned everything.”

In addition, unlike the masters lost in the recent Universal fires, most of Garner’s masters and original recordings are safe in storage thanks to Glaser storing them in closets in her office in New York City.  Now the estate is digitizing all that material and also remastering and releasing the albums in both digital and CD format. Working on the engineering and curating, Sands started with the Nightconcert, a live midnight concert from Amsterdam. “That was such an amazing project to be a part of, not only just because it’s Erroll but just to be in the studio and working on developing the sound of the record and listening to it back to back.” Unlike many concerts that may have been recorded with one mic, this one had 8 or 9 mics all moved to three tracks, which created a real challenge.

“Usually when you’re recording you have multiple tracks and then if you want to bring the bass up you can do that, bring the drums down,” explains Sands. “In this case, everything’s everywhere. Also, Erroll’s set up was a little difficult. In this concert I believe all the instruments were behind him, all to his left. Everything sort of shifted when you listened to the original recording. There were moments when the bass gets lost, or the drums get overpowered, or the piano overpowers everything. So we had a little bit of a project to do, but that was such a great thing to do because it was really kind of going back—it’s almost like uncovering treasure. You know, really finding out what it is.” Sands even got to name one of the heretofore untitled tunes.

Sands has learned plenty from his involvement with Garner’s estate and not all of it from hearing his music. “There’s so many layers to being a part of this project, not only just as a musician but as a businessman and as an artist,” he explains. “There were things where I’ve read these letters personally from Erroll where he talks about his struggle being an artist and whether he wants to be mainstream or whether people think he’s too mainstream or he’s too avant-garde, or he swings too much or he doesn’t swing enough.” 

Sounds like the same old stuff that jazz artists are still dealing with today. “Exactly. And, to hear somebody like Erroll Garner talk about that inner struggle as an individual artist, it definitely puts it in a perspective of, ‘Oh, yeah. I’m okay.’ Because, you know, everyone goes through this, ‘Well, what project do I do next?’ or ‘These musicians that I’ve been working with for so long can’t make the gig, so now how do we do this?’ And Erroll didn’t write down any music, so ‘How do we get all this together? Do I play too many standards? Do I play not enough standards? Well, I like standards.’ You know what I mean? There are a lot of different layers to studying and listening to Erroll and being a part of this estate because you’re learning so many different things.”

Something else that Sands came to learn and appreciate was Garner’s affinity for the popular music of his time. Garner would cover just about any popular artist or song, adding his twist to it and making sure to release if some time after the original hit had left the charts. Lockhart explains that, “He would always say, ‘I’ll wait till a song comes out and it’s hot, and I’ll wait till it cools down. Then I’ll play it.’” Sands understands that strategy. “I think just gave him a little less pressure as an artist—because now you can really do what you want with it,” he says. Unlike many jazz artists Garner didn’t look down upon popular music. “He loved it,” adds Sands. “His thing is that you’re a member of society so you should play music that’s a part of the rest of society.”

Although Garner isn’t as obvious an influence on contemporary jazz pianists, Sands believe that it’s still there. “The thing is, you can make direct webs from current artists—like when you listen to the intros of Erroll, and then you listen to how incredibly astounding they are in the improvisation, and then you listen to Cecil Taylor,” says Sands. “Or you listen to how abstract the intros are into the song and then you listen to Keith Jarrett. Just the idea of, ‘Okay, we’re going to start here and then we’re going to end up in this tune here.’” Sands also hears Garner’s influence in a thoroughly modern pianist like Brad Mehldau. “The use of Brad’s left hand and his right hand, and the correlation between the two is very much a similar idea that Erroll had, where there’s this idea that they’re so independent that they just do totally different things,” explains Sands. “Marcus Roberts, same thing. There’s definitely this use of the independence of each hand, just on a fundamental piano basis—like, okay, I can comp and do all this other stuff with the left hand, and all this other stuff with the right hand, and it still feels good, and the time is cool, and we’re being people and entertaining. When you listen to Erroll Garner play, there’s a certain style, there’s a certain thing that happened that he did and he did alone. There’s not anybody that really sounds like Erroll Garner.”

Sands is also putting that influence into practice with his own performances with his High Wire Trio, featuring Luques Curtis on bass and Terreon Gully or Ulysses Owens on drums, who are working up a repertoire of all Garner originals. Sands says that they already perform “Yesterday” and “My Funny Valentine” with their arrangements of Garner’s original arrangement. It’s not easy to do something new with the latter tune. “He plays it in a certain key, an F minor, which has a dark tone to it, but it’s beautiful,” notes Sands. “There’s like a kind of dark beauty that it has. Typically, a lot of people either sing it or play it in C minor, which is nice, but there’s something about F minor that kind of makes it a little bit more intimate.”

The experience has been inspiring to Sands who hopes that he can spread that feeling to a new generation. “I played in Pittsburgh and there was a young kid, a pianist, who was a fan of mine who didn’t know anything about Erroll, and after that he wanted to know everything there was about Erroll. So I gave him a record and I was like, ‘Hey man, check this out!’ and I got a letter in the mail the other day—a letter, an actual letter. This is this young kid, who was maybe 15, 16 years old talking about Erroll Garner and me, and the influence I’ve had on him, but also just listening to Erroll Garner and like, ‘Oh yeah, I like this part’ and ‘I see that you took this from Erroll’ or ‘Maybe this was influenced by Erroll.’ It was a great feeling to be a part of.” Given Sands’ own musical development mentored by Dr. Billy Taylor, Jackie McLean and other elders, it’s fitting that things have come full circle.

Sands is certainly enjoying the role of ambassador for Garner’s life’s work. “What I love is just introducing people to Erroll’s music,” he says. “Perhaps they had never heard of it before or perhaps they forgot about Erroll. As long as I’ve been doing this, for the past year and a half, it’s amazing to see how many Erroll fans there are, and how many people that know the music or remember, ‘Oh, I saw Erroll when he first came to town.’ There’s a lot of new things happening with Erroll Garner, and I’m just really happy to be a part of it, just being an overseer, being a creative voice, dealing with the products, dealing with the performances and the performing aspect of my other trio, the High Wire Trio, and anything else that we come up with. We’re always coming up with something interesting and new.”

As to Garner’s legacy, Sands says that the pianist has been in the background of modern music today. “When you listen to how he plays the instrument and then how we play it today, it’s very much the same thing,” he says. “It’s very much the two-hand coordination. I mean, it’s all just fundamental, perfect piano.” Geri Allen did her best to sum it up with this statement when she was at the University of Pittsburgh: “Erroll Garner personifies the joy of fearless virtuosity and exploration. His playing celebrated the greatest swinging big bands through an innovative and impossible pianism. Singular yet all embracing, Garner blurred the line between great art and popular art, and he was a staunch journeyman of the blues and his Pittsburgh legacy.” The late Clark Terry said of Garner, “The man was complete. He could do it all.”