Pitt to Host 51st Annual Jazz Seminar Honoring Pittsburgh Pianist Erroll Garner

Orrin Evans can’t remember a time when he didn’t make music on the piano. The Philadelphia-based professional jazz pianist said if someone is meant to be a musician, the career chooses them.

“I don’t think you can necessarily pursue a career in the arts,” Evans said. “I think whatever the art form is, it finds you and gives itself to you. I wasn’t looking for a career as a jazz musician, but it came to me.

Evans is one of Pitt’s star musicians 51st Annual Jazz Seminar and Concert from January 24 to 29. The seminar celebrates the legacy of Erroll Garner, an accomplished jazz pianist from Pittsburgh who died in 1977. He would have turned 100 last year. Pitt delayed the celebration to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, all events will be broadcast live on Youtube.

The seminar will include several performances throughout the week, an episode of the “Jazz Talk” podcast discussing Erroll Garner from the University archive 一 that the University organized in 2015 after the death of its long-time director, Martha Glaserin December 2014 一 on Wednesday and a panel on musicians’ rights on Thursday.

Evans will take part in performances throughout the week in tribute to Garner’s compositions, as well as the Jazz Talk episode and panel on musicians’ rights. He said he was most excited for the seminar because it will give him the chance to connect with other musicians.

“I’m excited to make music with new people. I know the musicians I play with, just because we know each other in the music world, but I don’t often get to play with them,” Evans said. “I’m always excited when new people come together and create music. It’s always a special moment for me.

Evans is scheduled for a collaborative performance on Saturday night with bassist Jeff Grubbs, drummer James JohnsonIII and flautist Nicole Mitchell Gantt – who is director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies program. Evans said he looks forward to performing music from Garner’s discography, especially tracks from Garner’s record, “Concert by the sea.

“’Concert By the Sea’ was one of the first records I bought. My dad listened to him a lot,” Evans said. “Erroll Garner’s approach to music and his piano playing has definitely been part of my upbringing and introduction to music in general.”

Irene Monteverde, a pianist and graduate jazz student pursuing her doctorate at Pitt, was drawn to the Jazz Studies program because of Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history, particularly in the Hill District. His doctorate focuses on the study of Garner’s legacy in the University archives.

Monteverde took part in the launch performance on Monday. She will also be a guest on Wednesday’s Jazz Talk episode, as well as a guest speaker after Thursday’s panel. She said she chose to study Garner because she had always been drawn to his music.

“I really love his music. I could listen to it forever and not get sick of it. When an artist really captures you and amazes you, it’s kind of obvious,” Monteverde said. “His music has just a light, bouncy quality that makes people happy. It’s the big happy sound that’s rooted in black music and black culture.

According to Monteverde, Pitt’s Garner archives include material beyond his music. It also features old concert advertisements, legal documents, Garner’s old tapes as well as his personal sketches.

“The archive contains some of Garner’s scribbles, but they are much better than I could ever do. These are things he was pondering over,” Monteverde said. “One of them is a cool bird with a musical note as a face. There are all these pastel colored pencils. It’s amazing to see inside his amazing imagination.

Gantt, the founder of the Jazz Talk podcast, said she was thrilled to pay tribute to Garner by playing his compositions this week.

“Erroll Garner is one of the great virtuosos in the history of jazz. He had such incredible talent – he’s from Pittsburgh, but he’s known all over the world,” Gantt said. “No one has been able to truly replace his style, his rhythmic agility, his melodic contagion or his incredible velocity as a player.”

Michael Heller, an associate professor in Pitt’s Jazz Studies program, will be a panelist at Thursday night’s event. He said he always considered Garner a brilliant performer because of his elaborate techniques.

“Garner was one of the most brilliant and breathtaking people of the past 100 years. Listening to him, I hear this incredible flow of inventiveness and variation in what he plays and just the perfection of his technique,” Heller said “Pittsburgh has been the hometown of some amazing jazz pianists.”

Besides Garner, Pittsburgh was also home to jazz musicians Earl “Fatha” Hines and Mary Lou Williams. Heller said Garner’s legacy extends beyond his immaculate musical talent. He was also a strong advocate for the rights of musicians to own their music, which he will discuss on Thursday night’s panel.

“Garner was deeply connected and invested in social progress and social movements of the time, especially on behalf of black artists and black Americans,” Heller said. “This is something that has not yet been adequately covered by the Garner Fellowship, and we are really working through the archives and through the Garner Foundation to restore that legacy.”

Evans said he hopes that by paying homage to Garner’s compositions, he will inspire students in some way.

“Everyone I’ve met in my career has inspired me in some way, and that’s pretty much what I hope to do for students,” Evans said. “I hope they leave hungry and full of desire to pursue or find out what excites them.”

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