I’ll Never Forget … Erroll Garner, Carnegie Hall

Three and a half hours into the celebrated jazz pianist’s much-anticipated performance at New York’s most hallowed performance space, a young schoolteacher bolted—and lived to regret it

By Susan Shafer

 

Erroll Garner

Play Misty for Us: Erroll Garner, suited up and exalting at the keyboard.
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Dec. 19, 2023

The Night the Music Came AliveI was a neophyte third grade school teacher in Ridgewood, Queens, in my second year facing a class of thirty-odd rambunctious kids, one of whom had a habit of throwing chairs in the back of the classroom. Teaching was, in a word, stressful. And of course, after lunch and a schoolyard break, things got compounded when the kids returned to my classroom full of complaints about who’d hit whom. Lots of drama must’ve gone on in that schoolyard. Not to mention what was happening in the outside world back then—in 1967: the Vietnam War was raging, as were worldwide protests against it, and civil unrest and racial violence in the U.S.

But I found a way of handling my job: via advance preparation with the academic side of things—with science, penmanship, social studies, reading, math. That meant spending most of my Sundays at my desk at home, planning lessons for the upcoming week. I took this job seriously: Writing math and science activities was time-consuming; everything had to be thoroughly planned. My routine was to get a full night’s sleep on Saturdays, so I could start no later than 8 a.m. and work through all of Sunday. I needed to be prepared.

But when a friend asked if I’d like to see Erroll Garner perform at Carnegie Hall on a Saturday evening, I thought—well, here’s a chance to see and hear not just any jazz pianist, but a musician extraordinaire. We bought tickets.

What did he play that evening? His performance probably included “Misty,” which Garner famously composed (with lyrics by Johnny Burke), and which became his signature piece. Maybe also “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “That’s My Kick,” “Nervous Waltz,” and many more

That concert, ending Garner’s eight-year break from performing in Carnegie Hall, was declared a triumph. As per a press release from the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, it was part of a series presenting the greatest exponents of the jazz idiom, identifying him as unquestioningly belonging among such “immortals” as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.

Erroll Garner outside Carnegie Hall

Sold Out indeed: Garner, all smiles at one of his billboards outside Carnegie Hall.
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During that evening, I discovered Garner’s playful side. He’d start a piece, or rather, meander at the keys by way of introduction. Relaxed, casually moving this way and that, he’d smile at the audience—not that we were sure of where he was going, but we were enjoying the ride nevertheless.

As we kept listening, slowly sensing that he was transitioning to a piece we just might recognize (Wait! That sounds like …I think it’s…?) I found myself silently singing:

“Look at me. / I’m as helpless as a …”

Yes, it’s “Misty!” I knew it! We applauded at the realization that Garner had teased us, and we were so glad that he had.

Besides being whimsical, Garner was innovative. As Eric Reed, his bassist for five years, once put it in a podcast: “When Garner’s on stage, it’s as if he were playing shapes, and colors, and ideas. That, to me, is the very foundation of avant-garde music.”

As described, the joy Garner projected that night came not just from what he played, but how. Ever sunny, his vibe invited the audience in on the fun. He often grinned at us—even to us in the balcony—as if to say, “Life is chocolate, cheesecake, whipped cream. Let’s enjoy it together.” His cheerfulness, his joy, drew me in.

I mentioned that Garner played many pieces that night. Therein lies the problem. Many. A problem for me. Not him.

Two hours in, my concentration waned. My thoughts drifted to my world outside Carnegie Hall: to a boy in my class who punches other boys, to the contents of my refrigerator, and, inevitably, to the blank pages in my teacher’s plan book.

Two and a half hours in, my attention also turned to such things as the interior design of Carnegie Hall. Was that marble on the walls in the foyer?

At the three-and-a-half-hour mark, Garner was still at the keyboard. I checked my watch.

With mixed feelings, my friend and I tiptoed across the aisle and out of the hall, even though Garner was still at it. He had endless energy and joy; my friend and I did not.

Looking back, I regret missing the last thirty minutes of that concert—the deep-down, almost spiritual, connection with the artist. What’s more, I wish I had stayed to contribute to what must have been the thunderous applause at the end of the show. I wish I had been an audience member honoring Garner with a standing ovation.

Now, almost six decades later, I think our decision to duck out early from Carnegie Hall was foolish. A one-of-a-kind innovation like Erroll Louis Garner’s deserved our attendance from beginning to the very end.

As for my students that week, academically they did well, but physically—mishaps occurred. An eight-year-old girl lost a sneaker. and a boy scraped his knee when he fell in the schoolyard. Perhaps a soothing Garner record like “Misty” might have cheered them, as it did me that Saturday night.

Susan Shafer, a former teacher and children’s book editor, is now a playwright and freelance writer.

 

You may enjoy other NYCitywoman articles by Susan Shafer:

The Story of My Covid Vaccination

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