The keys of time

Red Garland played with legends and then became one. So why is he barely known in his hometown?

His old friends, men whose own names are synonymous with myth, often wondered what became of the man named Red. For years, they couldn't understand what in the world would persuade William M. Garland to abandon New York City for the boonies, his hometown of Dallas. The pianist's departure seemed so abrupt; his disappearing act left a tangible hole that other musicians could see, could feel. It simply didn't make sense, leaving Jazz Central for Nowheresville. That's why, each time Red Garland would come to town to play the Village Vanguard or Lush Life in Greenwich Village during the mid-1970s, they would all come to pay their respects and, sometimes, to beg him to come back.

But Garland didn't need to explain himself, not to his friends and certainly not to the reporters who would hound him each time he stepped off the stage. The man had done enough, seen enough for a few lifetimes' worth of accomplishments. Just look at the list of men with whom he shared stage and studio since the 1940s: Buster Smith, the saxman who taught Charlie Parker how to blow his horn; Dallas-born trumpet player Oran "Hot Lips" Page, who had played with the likes of Ma Rainey and Count Basie; Billy Eckstine, who sang in Earl Hines' band--which also included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and a young Sarah Vaughan; Coleman Hawkins, the man for whom they should have renamed the tenor sax; Roy Eldridge, a man who held a trumpet like a gangster holds a gun.

Garland had performed with all of them before he was 26 years old. And the best was yet to come: all those years (1955-1958) spent with Miles Davis and John Coltrane in Davis' first legendary quintet. They were three of the most important years in the history of modern music, resulting in such albums as Workin', Steamin', Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, and a little immortal somethin'-somethin' titled Round About Midnight--until, in Davis' own words, "Red Garland walked out on me." Then, there were dozens of albums Garland cut under his own name--albums like 1956's Garland of Red and '57's Soul Junction (featuring Coltrane, no less) and so many pretty, perfect others. And those records with Coltrane. And with Thelonious Monk. And Sonny Rollins. And Bird.

Legends, gods, icons, heroes all. Even the non-jazz fan knows their names, so indelible are their contributions to the culture. Imagine what it must have been like--to have walked amongst such gods, to have been their equal. It is, quite simply, unfathomable to mortals such as ourselves.

It is likely that Red Garland--born in Dallas May 12, 1923; died in Dallas April 23, 1984--always knew what an accomplishment his life had been. It was decades ago, but still local tenor sax lion Marchel Ivery, a student and friend of Garland's since the 1960s, recalls their conversation as though it had taken place an hour ago.

The two men were coming back to Dallas from a gig in New York, and it was late. Garland was not an old man, but he was exhausted nonetheless--from the travel, from the years spent caring for his ailing mother (who died here in 1968), from the constant requests for concerts and recording dates. Garland turned to his young protege and told him, quite simply, "I don't have anything to prove. I don't know what I'm gonna do. I played with everybody."

Garland then vowed to Ivery this one thing: "I want to get you started, if my health holds up." Ivery, recounting the tale now, insists those were Garland's exact words. And indeed, he would make good on his promise, helping Ivery get a gig with drummer Art Blakey's band--the place where young lions go to sharpen their teeth before getting tossed out in the real world. Everybody who became anybody played with Blakey. Garland wanted to make sure his friend, his pupil, got his education in the best finishing school in the world. He wanted to make sure Ivery became somebody, even though it would be years--until 1995, to be exact--before Marchel Ivery recorded his own album as bandleader.

In some small way, Ivery tries to repay the debt as often as he can, keeping alive the memory of Red Garland--who, even now, remains one of the most underappreciated and unknown figures in jazz, especially in his home town. That's despite the not-so-insignificant fact that record labels continue to issue and reissue Garland's work to this day: In 1999, such labels as 32 Jazz (Left My Heart in San Francisco) and Fantasy (The Nearness of You) keep stocking the bins with fresh product. Both are astonishing records: The Fantasy disc is heartbreaking, wrenching, the sound of a thousand breakups rolled into 40 minutes and 25 seconds of whispered melancholy. The 32 Jazz release offers a slightly different side of Garland, the balladeer as bebop scientist.

Get Ivery talking about Garland, and the stories are almost endless. He recalls the time they met at the Arandis Club in South Dallas, in the late 1960s; he recalls their trips to New York, the way McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton and every other great pianist would show up at Lush Life or the Vanguard. And he talks about their daily visits that lasted for hours, till evening became morning.

"I was always in awe of him," Ivery says. "Whenever we were on the bandstand, it was an experience I can't explain. It's something I will cherish forever. I wish he was here today. I talked to Red every day. He would call me, and we would talk an hour, two hours. Then, when we'd get off the phone, he'd say, 'You coming over?' I'd sit over there till one in the morning, and we'd talk, talk, talk. I wish I had a tape recorder. We talked about Dizzy, Max, Charlie Parker. He said that when he played with Charlie, he didn't want to solo after him, he was so good. I asked him if he recorded with Parker, and he said yeah, but he didn't know what happened to the recording. The record they did together, Live at Storyville, came out a year after Red passed. He passed without even knowing about it."

No doubt Ivery will share those stories and myriad others come June 12, when the first installment of the Jazz Legends Festival kicks off at the South Dallas Cultural Center. Ivery will play with his band, then appear on a panel with Texas Jazz author Dave Oliphant and other local jazzers who knew Garland or who were influenced by his precise, poignant playing. It's the least Ivery can do: talk about Red Garland till the piano player no longer stands in the shadows.

"Red's name got lost in the mix somehow," Ivery says. "People knew who he was, but didn't know at what level his fame was. And maybe that's because Red was a secluded kind of a guy. He didn't open himself up to a dialogue with the media. He didn't do interviews. He may have done one in New York, but he just told them, 'I told you guys you ask the same questions all the time, and I tell you the same things all the time.' Once, when we played New York, we made an escape from the club and made it to the hotel room, and this guy from Jazz Times found out where we were staying and lived in the hotel lobby for two, three days and finally caught up with us. Red agreed to talk to him--he had to.

"And when he moved back to Dallas in the 1960s, I didn't see anything printed in the local papers regarding his reappearance on the scene. I knew him because of his records, but when I first heard him or saw his name on a record label, I didn't even know he was from Dallas. I found that out when I was in the Army. A friend told me there was a guy from Dallas on Miles' records. I said, 'A guy from Dallas? I don't know who that could be.'"

It seems so odd, so unfortunate that a man as influential as Garland--a man whose career touches upon so many milestones, who made the transition from swing to bop to cool to post-bop to everything else in between--has never been given his proper due. There exist no books on Garland, and only a handful of magazine articles--most of them dating back 15, 20 years. Ivery says critic Stanley Crouch was once working on a Garland biography--he even came to town to interview Red and Marchel, and to collect other materials from them--but that nothing ever came of it. This, despite the fact that Garland's is a most riveting story that includes his brief career as a welterweight who lost one of his few pro fights to Sugar Ray Robinson.

And while, if nothing else, the bulk of Garland's material remains in print, there is no proper boxed-set best-of to put his work in perspective. Davis and Coltrane each have dozens of boxes to their names--most featuring Garland; there's not even a best-of-Red on the market to lure in the novice who's too timid to buy such masterpieces as 1959's Red Garland at the Prelude, Vol. 1 or 1960's Red Alone.

"Everything he touched was gold," says Oliphant from his office on the University of Texas at Austin campus. "But I was talking to someone the other day, and they said, 'Red Garland? Never heard of him.' It was someone I thought should know a jazz figure like that, but they had no idea, and it's hard to say why. It mystifies me. Either people don't pay that much attention to names in groups--they know Miles, but not who played with him--but if they know his work in the '50s with Miles and Trane, they have to know the name. And if you go to the record store, there are always 10, 12 albums in the bins. He has as many albums as anyone else, every one of them worth owning."

It seems odd, but there are no recordings featuring the two friends, Ivery and Garland. There were dates--once, a man from a Japanese label set up a tape recorder at the long-gone Recovery Room and captured a night's worth of stellar material--but no record ever appeared.

All that's left now are dozens of cheapie cassettes made nightly at the Recovery Room that are in the possession of Leaning House Records co-owner Mark Elliott, who got a box of tapes (featuring Ivery and Garland and many other local and national luminaries) from the club's former owners. Elliott insists the quality of the recordings is so poor--most were made with a single microphone--it would cost a fortune to clean them up. And even then, Elliott insists, it's likely the remastering job would reveal little beyond dust and static.

"If it was Miles or Coltrane, who cares?" Elliott says. "Every scrap of tape is valuable with those guys. I don't know if Red is of quite that status, unfortunately. But it's a joy to listen to them, to hear him play in that informal of a situation. He reacts with the players, makes interjections while they're playing. It's fun to hear the excitement in his voice. I just don't know if, with all the money factors, it makes sense to do anything with the tapes."

It was Ivery who helped Elliott get his hands on those tapes--no doubt, because he wanted something to remember his friend by, some proof that their partnership was not the stuff of which dreams are made. He'd love to hear those tapes again, to remember those nights at the Recovery Room, the late-night visits, and the years spent studying beside so important a man.

And it would be nice to have those Recovery Room tapes for another reason: A substantial gap exists in Garland's discography because he didn't record much between 1962 and 1977, when he was lured out of retirement to play on a few sessions. He made only a few albums in the 1970s and early 1980s--every one of them amazing, the final one (1982's Misty Red) being among the very best. The man got better as he got older.

"What I took away from Red was the musical knowledge he gave me, the musical theory, and how things are done and when to do what," Ivery recalls. "He explained things to me I wouldn't have learned in school. It was on-the-job training with someone of his caliber. It was amazing. Him and Bud Powell were two people cut from the same mold, because they had the same kind of mannerisms. They both were geniuses. Anyone who heard them play would tell you the same thing. He was like a father to me, because he saw something in me I didn't see in myself and no one else saw. He took a chance on me.

"Even musicians in New York asked me what was it like to play with him--guys with names, guys who never played with him but always longed to play with him. They were in awe of him--even though the people in Dallas didn't appreciate him or know who he was. Every time we were in New York, it was a red-carpet experience. They hugged him, kissed him; the press was all over him, asking him, 'What is it like being away from the scene?' I ate all that up, because I enjoyed being with someone that great. I can't explain how much it meant to me."

Yes, he can.

The Jazz Legends Festival begins at 11 a.m. June 12 at the South Dallas Cultural Center, 3400 S. Fitzhugh. There will be a panel discussion of Garland's work, followed by performances from Robert Sander, Simone Jackson-Rogers, the Roger Boykin Quintet, and the Marchel Ivery Quintet. An exhibit will feature Garland memorabilia. Call (214) 943-1449 for more information.

A Slavens to radio
A wise man once said that radio is a sad salvation. Maybe Paul Slavens and his Green Romance Orchestra bandmate Dave Abbruzzese (who's gotta be sick of being referred to as Pearl Jam's ex-drummer, so we won't) will have something to say about that. The duo are taking the recordings of 10 performances of Dr. Paul Slavens' Texclectic Radio Hour (And a Half), made during the past year at Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams, to Los Angeles to be mixed at producer Daniel Lanois' studio. Slavens and Abbruzzese will produce the show in 30- and 60-minute formats, with the hopes of pitching a Texclectic radio show to National Public Radio.

"As far as the NPR thing goes, I have been trying to keep my intentions somewhat quiet until I had fully realized the entire show," Slavens says. "Once I get done mixing in L.A., that will be complete." In the meantime, Slavens will release the final product for free on the Texclectic Web site (www.texclectic.com) and may eventually burn CDs of it himself.

For those not in the know, The Texclectic Radio Hour (And a Half) is an hourlong live radio show featuring improv comedy and music by The Texclectic Unsemble, which includes Slavens on keyboards and vocals, Reggie Rueffer on violin and vocals, Gary Muller on Chapman Stick, and Pete Young on drums. Other local musicians sit in regularly. Indeed, on May 27 at Club Dada, bassist Fred Hamilton (of the Earl Harvin Trio) and Brave Combo's Jeffrey Barnes sat in during a performance. The Radio Hour (And A Half) takes place monthly at Caravan of Dreams, and The Texclectic Unsemble performs every first Monday at Dan's Bar in Denton and every last Thursday at Club Dada.

--Shannon Sutlief

Scene, heard
It has been four years since Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat released a record--which, you know, ain't nothing around these parts. And it's not for lack of trying: Suhler has been attempting for several years to extricate himself from his record deal with the apparently ironically named Lucky 7 label. Finally, he's out of his contract and in the process of completing a deal with Rounder Records or its blues subsidiary Bullseye; he and the band should be in the studio by July, with a new album tentatively scheduled for release in January. "It's not like I haven't wanted to record," Suhler says. "It's just been a nightmare for me." So this summer's tour with George Thorogood and the Destroyers is just gravy, man: Suhler was scheduled to appear with the guy who used to be bad to the bone June 8 on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and he'll back up the band during a summer stint opening for St. Mark's product Steve Miller. For some reason, the tour currently has no Dallas dates, but Suhler expects to be with Thorogood for the long haul--permanently, that is, meaning no more than 100 gigs every year. And is anything ever permanent in rock and roll--except, of course, aging groupies and overdose deaths...?

And on the other end of the spectrum: Centro-matic will release its second album in three months come mid-July. Will Johnson, Matt Pence, and the boys will unleash The Static vs. The Strings next month; the album follows on the heels of April's majestically gloomy Navigational. Originally, the latter album was to be titled Activator, but it is still part of a series of discs to feature four-track recordings, studio demos recorded last summer in Illinois, and outtakes from the Centro-matic debut, Redo the Stacks. Then, in September, the band's so-called "rock" record will hit stores. Fellas, two words: boxed set...

Cowboys and Indians frontman Eric Swanson is finally getting played all over this fine country's radio stations--though probably not the way he imagined it. Sure, he'd love it if someone wanted to make a hit out of "Red Hot Rhythm" off his band's 1998 gem Big Night in Cowtown. But maybe this is the second-best thing: Swanson provides the deep-and-booming voice for one of two GTE spots currently making the radio rounds, plugging the phone company's 411 national directory assistance service. (Mary Cutrufello provides the vocals for the other spot.) "They flew me to Nashville to do this jingle they had written," Swanson says. "Now, the ad's all over the place. My brother lives in Tampa, and he said he hears it all the time. I mean, it may not be big news, but it's big to me. And they said I did a good job because I enunciated my words well..."

Bedford's got one thing going for it: Mac Curtis, among the last of the real rockabillies. (There may be more to Bedford, but damned if we know about it. So, look--no offense.) Curtis knows better than anyone that rockabilly never disappeared; it just moved to England. So it's more than a little ironic that Curtis should appear on a brand-new compilation titled The Return of Rockabilly, released on the Orlando, Florida-based Beloved Recordings label. Dig this: According to the accompanying press release, "rockabilly music is destined to become the next hot music trend, following in the footsteps of ska and swing." Christ, is that a promise or a threat? The latter, most likely, considering the retro acts on this disc: England's Big Six, Australia's Slap 'N' Cats, and Rhode Island's Amazing Crowns. Rock around the schlock. Mac, you deserve better.

--R.W.

Send your deadly cocktails to Street Beat at rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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