Largely self-taught, Red Garland established a reputation as a solid post-bop mainstream player in the 50s, playing with many of the most famous jazz musicians of the time. He achieved international fame in the late 50s as part of the Miles Davis quintet. He went on to lead his own groups, but then retired in 1968, a victim the declining demand for jazz. He reemerged in 1976 and performed regularly until his death in 1984.
Garland was known for his eloquent middle-of-the-road style. A fertile, often moving improvisor, he developed a characteristic block chord sound by combining octaves with a fifth in the middle in the right hand over left-hand comp (accompanying) chords. The style has been much imitated.
William M. "Red" Garland was born March 13, 1923, in Dallas, Texas. He came from a non-musical family: his father was an elevator operator at the First National Bank. His first instrument was clarinet and studied alto saxophone with Buster Smith, a well-known Texas saxophonist, who was a strong influence on Charlie Parker. Garland only started on piano in 1941, when he was 18, and in the Army. Stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, he heard a pianist named John Lewis play night after night in the recreation room-this was not the famous John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Finally giving in to his fascination with the instrument, Garland asked the pianist to teach him. Since he had learned to read music under Buster Smith he didn't have to start from zero. Garland his entire days practicing and made rapid progress. At that time he was also a semi-professional prizefighter, a welterweight, and once lost to Sugar Ray Robinson. There was a time when he had to decide whether to follow boxing or music as a career, and although he chose music, he was left with a broken knuckle as a souvenir of his road not taken.
Garland also studied with another Army pianist, Lee Barnes. By the time Garland left the service, he was learning on his own from recordings. His main influences at that time were Count Basie and Nat Cole, from whom he drew lessons in touch, phrasing and conception. He also learned from James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell and Art Tatum. Tatum was his favorite, and he knew he cold never play like he could.
In 1945 Garland played his first gig on piano with Fort Worth tenor player Bill Blocker. It was less than five years after he had begun studying piano. Then traditional jazz trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page came through town. Word spread around that Page's pianist had quit and he was looking for a new one. Garland had intended to attend the dance Page was playing at anyway, so after his gig he stopped by. Four pianists, including Garland, played for Page that night, right out of Page's book of arrangements. Garland went home to bed after the dance and thought no more about it.