Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland

“The softer you play, the stronger it gets.”

— Miles Davis

In 1942, nineteen year-old William “Red” Garland went eight brutal rounds with Muhammad Ali’s idol, Sugar Ray Robinson. Garland lost badly that night. Battered in the ring, the young fighter from Dallas soon decided to give up his dream of becoming welterweight champion of the world and return to his other passion: playing the piano. Fortunately, Red’s hands survived the bruising encounter with Robinson. As Garland later quipped to Miles Davis, who fantasized about being a boxer, “Of course, I didn’t hit Ray but once or twice.”

Garland began his career as a musician playing the jump blues, first as a horn player and later on the piano. He worked his way from Texas up to Philly and later New York, swiftly gaining a reputation as a versatile journeyman, who could play everything from swing to blues. In his early 20s, he backed crooners like Nat King Cole and hot trumpet players like the great Roy Eldridge. He sat in with Lester Young and toured with Coleman Hawkins. Then in the late 40s he helped to forge a revolution in music by playing beside Charlie Parker when bebop detonated in the jazz clubs of Manhattan.

But the blistering tempos of bop weren’t really Garland’s natural habitat. He was at heart a blues player with a gift for dexterous improvisation. After his fruitful collaborations with Bird, he hooked up with another Texan, the up-and-coming sax player Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who was fronting a hard-charging rhythm-and-blues band. They called him Cleanhead because, like Malcolm X, his scalp had been burned raw by a lye-based hair-straightener.  Vinson’s hair never grew back. Vinson’s band, with Garland at the keyboards, scored some several big hits in the late 40s and early 1950s, including “ Kidney Stew Blues,” “Old Maid Boogie” and “Cherry Red.”

Then in 1952 Vinson’s music began to change radically. From jump blues and hard-driving swing, Cleanhead’s band began to venture into more jazz, featuring improvised solos and prolonged jams. The change in style probably had something to do with the addition of a scintillating new tenor player, a country kid from North Carolina by the name of John Coltrane.

Coltrane and Red soon hit it off. Red was three years older–more worldly, and a more confident musician. Trane, who had just switched from alto to tenor, was struggling to find his own sound. He pestered Garland relentlessly about his time playing with Charlie Parker. Coltrane later said he was infatuated with Parker’s music, though he didn’t understand it. “It was something I felt in the gut, emotionally,” Coltrane said. Garland helped fill in the gaps and sharpen Coltrane’s emerging new sound. During those days on tour with Cleanhead’s band, Garland and Coltrane also discovered two other common interests: whiskey and heroin.

By this time, Coltrane had already been booted out of Dizzy Gillespie’s band for missing gigs and botching solos, a consequence of his debilitating addiction. He’d retreated to Philadelphia to kick the smack and study music theory at the Granoff School with guitarist Dennis Sandole. But Coltrane wasn’t much for schooling and he soon hit the road with Vinson and Garland and indulged in all the temptations that touring offered.

* * *

In the early 1950s, Miles Davis was in withdrawal, both from heroin and from the influence of his former foil Charlie Parker. He was searching for a softer sound, a blues-based alternative to the kinetic frenzy of bebop. Davis had fallen under the spell of the Chicago-based pianist Ahmad Jamal, whose music featured spare, almost minimalist phrasings, blank spaces, and subtle harmonics. The approach was economical, but it did swing–still does, in fact. Davis retooled his own technique to replicate the Jamal style on his trumpet. In 1953, Miles asked his pal, the drummer Philly Joe Jones, to find him a piano player “like Ahmad Jamal.” Philly Joe got Davis someone better. He introduced Miles to Red Garland.

By the time Garland auditioned for Miles, his style had already distilled into a highly original approach that would exert a profound, if often unrecognized influence, on the jazz pianists of the 1960s, including Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. Along with George Shearing, Garland introduced the block chording technique into jazz. But Garland’s style was unique, he played four note chords in his left hand struck in the same rhythm as the melody line. The sound was light, condensed, rhythmic. Or, as Philly Jo said, it grooved. It’s that groove and the symbiotic way that Davis and Garland exploited it which defined the post-bop era of jazz.

Davis still had two crucial slots to fill in his new quartet: tenor and bass. He desperately wanted Sonny Rollins. But Rollins was battling his own demons. Garland convinced a skeptical Davis to hire John Coltrane, who was about to sign up with the great organist Jimmy Smith. For bass, Miles selected the young prodigy from Detroit, Paul Chambers, who would in a few short years redefine the musical possibilities of the stand-up bass. There it was. The first great quintet, the backbone of which became known as simply “the Rhythm Section:” Garland, Chambers and Jones.

That rhythm section, which would go on to back outings by Coltrane and the best album by West Coast sax player Art Pepper, was also a band of junkies, with Philly Joe dealing the smack and getting the young and brilliant Paul Chambers hooked. (Chambers never kicked the drugs. He died in 1969 at the age of 33.)

Indeed all the members of the quintet, with the exception of Miles, were addicts. They became known on the club circuit as Miles Davis and the “Booze and Dope Band.” Coltrane would nod off on stage during solos by Davis and Garland; Jones would habitually show up late to gigs; Garland and Chambers would routinely hit Miles up for cash to feed their habits. But over the course of three years, from 1955 to 1958, they recorded on classic session after another. And the albums flowed in quick succession because Davis was caught in a contractual bind. After his seminal performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, Davis was signed by Columbia Records, desperate to cash in on the new craze for jazz on college campuses driven largely by the success of the Dave Brubeck Group. But there was a problem. Davis still owed the Prestige label five albums. So Miles took the new quintet into Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio and audaciously recorded four albums in two separate one day sessions to fulfill the contract: Cookin’Relaxin’Workin’ and Steamin’. Even more audaciously, each album proved to be a classic, a seamless new sound by a band that was hitting on all cylinders.

In between the Prestige sessions, Miles snuck the band into Columbia’s Manhattan studios to record the blues-infused Round About Midnight. Technically, Davis was in violation of his contract with Prestige. But the ground-breaking album, which included dramatic reworkings of Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha,” wouldn’t be released for more than a year. And by that time the band was splintering due to the enervating toll heroin had begun to exact on Coltrane.

After missing several gigs, Coltrane was booted from the group. The sax player ended up joining the Thelonious Monk Quartet for a very productive year, where he would ease himself off heroin and revolutionize his style. Meanwhile, Miles put his own band on hiatus, while he pursued a big band project with Gil Evans that would result in the lush waves of brass on Miles Ahead. The rhythm section was left to fend for itself.

Garland took Paul Chambers and the hot young drummer Art Taylor into Van Gelder’s studios to record six tracks. They emerged with an album titled Groovy, which proved to be a masterpiece of modern, post-bebop jazz. It’s cool, dark and swinging. Groovy is the kind of after hours blues that musicians listen to raptly at 3 o’clock in the morning, while sipping bourbon and passing around a joint.

The record opens with startling inversion of Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues,” driven by Garland’s thick chords and Taylor’s palpitating drumming. Then on the Erroll Garner blues, “Gone Again,” Garland lays back, opening up creative spaces for the melodic basslines of Chambers. The tempo accelerates on “Will You Still Be Mine?,” with bright, blistering runs that even Art Tatum might envy. But the high point of the album is the Garland composition, “Hey Now,” in which the infectious melody is repeated and subtly altered in each new sequence. The result is a nearly flawless recording, a neglected classic that would quietly influence and shape the modal movement that would overtake jazz in the next couple of years.

A few months later Davis reassembled the old band with the addition of Cannonball Adderley. Even Coltrane was summoned back. Coltrane returned with a powerful, distinctive new sound. After playing a few tour dates, Davis brought the band into the Columbia studios for the Milestones sessions, which is the first modal blues album. It was also an album where Davis sought to recreate the kind of base structure built by Garland and Chambers on Groovy, that softly swinging rhythm over which Miles, Coltrane and Adderley blew fervid and chromatic solos.

But the old problems began to reassert themselves. Philly Jo Jones hated working for Columbia. As Eric Nisenson discloses in his tremendously informative Round About Midnight: a Profile of Miles Davis, Jones preferred recording for Prestige, who paid him in cash after each session. At Columbia, he had to wait days, even weeks for his checks to arrive. Addicts get uptight waiting that long for their money.

Garland was also, as Davis put it, “fucking up.” The piano player didn’t show up for the last recording session and Miles had to comp on the piano himself. Several hours later Garland stumbled in, sat down at the piano, looked at Miles through bleary eyes and said, “Where’s the band, man?” Davis fired him the next day and later replaced him with Bill Evans, who would, a few months later, play on, and claim much of the aesthetic credit for, what is arguably the greatest recording of the 20th (or any other) century: Kind of Blue.

Garland continued to record for another two decades. But the sessions never equaled the achievement of Groovy or matched his inspired work running the rhythm section of the Davis group. After Miles, Garland, ravaged by dope, had gone from being in a groove to being stuck in a rut, recycling arid variations on the old themes. Red died in near obscurity back in Dallas, that dismal town, in 1984. The New York Times didn’t even pause to note his passing.

But the next time you put on Kind of Blue dig deep into the lower strata, where the rhythms are being laid down, and you’ll hear the ghost of Red Garland’s magic left hand.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3