H. Johnson's Jazz Moment: Pianist and composer Erroll Garner

Longtime WABE host H. Johnson (WABE).

WABE’s H. Johnson has been a fixture on our station since 1978. As host of both “Blues Classics” and “Jazz Classics,” H. continually educates and entertains WABE listeners every Friday and Saturday night. Now, H. joins “City Lights” every other Friday to share a bit from his breadth of jazz knowledge. The segment, “H. Johnson’s Jazz Moment,” explores selections from the best of H.’s music collection along with tidbits from history, personal reflections and H.’s thoughts on the evergreen resonance of jazz. 

Today’s “Jazz Moment” spotlights the pianist Erroll Garner. H. Johnson’s personal affinity for this piano legend dates back to his childhood, when he was first learning to play piano himself. 

Johnson recounted, “I was very, very fond of music and musicians particularly, and especially jazz musicians. I would listen to all of them, but when I heard this man, this one particular pianist … on the radio, and I thought, ‘What in the world?’ It was so beautiful.”

The very song that first caught young Johnson’s ear is featured in this “Jazz Moment” — the mellow, mid-tempo swing classic “Lullaby in Birdland.” Garner’s sparkling style sets the song apart from its near-infinite interpretations. The standard has been played and sung by just about everyone, but the recording catches Garner in a moment where the spectrum of his unique gifts shine in their full breadth; from his delicate, twinkling touch on lighter passages, to his deep pocket in a left hand unburdened by any real dependency on a rhythm section.

“When he played piano, he would play in such a bouncing way. When he played those bouncy tunes, like ‘I’m Confessin’ that I Love You’ and ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ stuff like that … he always had this way of playing with his left hand, playing chords like a guitar, just strumming in the background,” said Johnson. “Even when he was going solo, he was great. His left hand was strumming, like a bass or guitar, primarily a bass, and his right hand played off key but made it sound right, and then he’d come right back on key and made it sound even better.”

Jazz lovers will already be well familiar with Garner, from his ubiquitous classic “Misty” and other gems like “Laura” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” A little obliquely, Johnson informed listeners that Erroll Garner is “the reason Art Blakey plays drums.” He further teased his insider knowledge, revealing that he’s spent a little time with Garner in person. “He was just like his music, full of fun. A loving individual; liked to shoot pool.” 

Catch “Blues Classics with H. Johnson” every Friday from 10 p.m. to midnight, and “Jazz Classics with H. Johnson” every Saturday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. on WABE 90.1 Atlanta.