The keys of time

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky