Several weeks ago I mentioned to my friend, Nick Rossi, that I planned to do a feature on Arv Garrison. I had heard Arv’s name mentioned during the recent slew of radio broadcast specials devoted to the celebration of Charlie Parker’s centenary. Arv Garrison’s electric guitar can be heard on three of Parker’s first sessions for Ross Russell’s Dial Records. Nick related that he was a great fan of Garrison and said that I needed to check out Vivian Garry’s autobiography, The Blues in “B” Flat.
As luck would have it, I owned a copy of Vivian’s book, but read it mainly to research her marriage to Jimmy Giuffre and early recordings of Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All Stars. Vivian’s book ends with an appreciation of Arv Garrison written by Bob Dietsche. She included two pages from the article published in Toledo Magazine in 1989. The two pages convinced me that Bob Dietsche had said it all. It took a while to track Bob down and get in touch. He graciously extended permission for me to feature his excellent account of the jazz life of Arv Garrison. Photos courtesy of Bob Dietsche.
Talented and Troubled
The brilliant but short-lived career of Toledo’s Arv Garrison
Toledo has been home to several jazz greats, but the best-kept secret in this town might have been Arv Garrison, a guitarist whose career was cut short by illness.
By Bob Dietsche
TOLEDO, OHIO, probably will never be among the Top 10 cities for jazz. Better known nationally as the birthplace of TV’s Corporal Klinger (Jamie Farr in M*A*S*H) than as the glass capital of the world, Toledo, quiet as it’s kept, has had a significant impact on the development of jazz in America. In the words of Fats Waller, who spent some weekends here, “The town was jumpin’.” To some extent, it still is, but not like the late 20s and 30s when hall-of-famers Teddy Wilson and Jimmy Harrison were living here, along with the greatest piano player of them all, Art Tatum. Stanley Cowell is from Toledo. So is the “James Joyce of Jazz,” Jon Hendricks. But the best-kept jazz secret in this port town is the case of Arv Garrison.
Garrison died at the end of July, 1960. The headline of his obituary must have seemed like the final humiliation to those who knew him: “Ace Swimmer Dies In Quarry.” Arv was a very good swimmer, but he was a much better guitar player. Yet, there’s hardly a word about his musical skills, nothing about the historic recordings he made with Charlie Parker or about getting his picture on the cover of Down Beat magazine in 1946.
That was Arv’s big year. Esquire said that he was one of the best guitar players. Jazz writer Barry Ulanov went further when he called Garrison, “one of the great guitarists of our time.” Django Reinhardt, whose name is as familiar to the world of guitar as Elvis Presley is to the world of rock, picked Arv as “the best of the new crop.” That figures, because Arv came about as close to Django’s style as anyone I can think of, and that includes Les Paul, Oscar Moore, and all the rest. His specialty was the “tremelo gliss,” a Django trick that guitar players to this day are trying to perfect.
Not bad for a guy who wasn’t supposed to have any talent. That’s what Arv’s guitar teacher told him after a lesson one day: “Son, maybe it’s time you thought about some other interests.” Aside from an occasional swim, Arv had no other interests, unless you want to count eating.
There have been some big appetites in jazz, but not many to match Arv’s. One night at Red Wells, he downed 10 roast beef and gravy sandwiches at a single sitting. Nobody could understand why he never gained any weight. His dad thought it might be related to the mild seizures Arv had when he was younger. Otherwise, he was a perfect specimen, a lady killer with blonde wavy hair, soft features, and a Sunny Jim smile that could make you say “yes.” Add a Catalina wardrobe and a sun tan like the one he had in the summer of ’46, and we’re talking Gentleman’s Quarterly.
Yet he was about as quiet and self-effacing as they come.
Garrison wasn’t exactly a worldly man. Guitar simple might be more like it. Geography, politics, ball scores, even balancing a checkbook were beyond his scope. He was a mama’s boy who never got around to leaving mom. She taught him how to read music and placed him in the center of the universe around whom all things revolved. She took care of his daily affairs while Arv played along with his Django records from morning until night.
Arv’s mother wasn’t even upset when her son dropped out of DeVilbiss High School in the middle of his senior year. He was out of school more than he was in anyway, and when he was in, he was looking for someplace to practice. Garrison was the “Basketball Jones” of the guitar — nobody remembers seeing him without it.
Much of that time, he was working with pianist Bill Cummerow, who told me that he discovered Arv in 1938 at the high school variety show. “He must have been a freshman then. I guess I spotted a genius. We played quite a lot together after that. He was all music, but in my opinion, he would never have gone anywhere without his wife, Vivian. She pushed him into the spotlight. She could be aggressive when she had to. I remember one night at a club somewhere, the owner walked over to Arv’s chair and pulled as if to take it out from under him, saying, ‘Stand up when you play here.’ Vivian let him have it: ‘Can’t you see that his back is tired? Now let go of that chair or you’re going to be wearing it.’ I think we lost that engagement.”
I caught up with Vivian a few years ago when she was selling time-shares in Lake Tahoe. Her platinum blond hair, spiked heels, and long red fingernails brought to mind an ex-showgirl. “Everybody loved Arv,” she recalled. “You know he taught me to play the bass, and I became the first female jazz bass player. I was so crazy about Arv when I first met him that I used to follow him around to all of his rehearsals. I noticed that his bass player was having trouble getting the chords right, and I said to myself, ‘Hell, I can do better than that’, so I went out and bought a bass from a guy who informed me that ladies did not play the bass fiddle. I took it home and put it in the middle of the front room. When Arv came over that night, I said, ‘Teach me to play this, and we’ll become famous.’ I learned fast, so in a few weeks I was already better than Arv’s regular bass player. We picked up Bill Cummerow and called ourselves the Vivian Garry Trio, combining my name with Arv’s. I contacted an agent, and we were off and running.”
“Our repertoire included a lot of Nat Cole material. Wherever we played, the people loved us, so it wasn’t that hard to get booked in Chicago, where we played at the Brass Rail. A lot of name jazz musicians were dropping by to hear this crazy trio with the chick bass player. One of them came up to me one night and told me that I played pretty well for a girl.”
By 1945, the Vivian Garry Trio, with new pianist Teddy Kaye, was good enough to get work on New York’s 52nd Street, known is those days as “Swing Street,” and later on as “The Street That Never Slept.” It was a 24-hour non-stop jam session that began with the repeal of Prohibition and ended 20 years later. You could stand at one end of the street, look down, and see a sort of neon hall of fame rising above those canopied marquees announcing Jack Teagarden at the Club Downbeat, Colman Hawkins at the Three Deuces, or Billy Holiday at Jimmy Ryan’s.
On the inside of one of the brownstone buildings that lined 52nd Street was a jazz club the size of a doll house, called Kelly’s Stable. That was where Viv and Arv had a nine-month contract. During that time, they entertained the best of the best — Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald. Art Tatum came in one night. He stayed a set, then left without saying a word, unusual in that he and Arv had played together at the Bellman and Waiters club in Toledo. Arv was crushed until, a few minutes later, Tatum’s manager explained that Art had to go back to his job at the Onyx Club, but that he wanted them to know how impressed be was.
After that, they were on a roll. Everybody wanted them. Their names began appearing in all the trade journals. Art Ford of WNEW invited them to play on his “Saturday Night Swing Session,” one of the most popular jazz radio programs in America. Then came their biggest break, a recording date with Guild Records.
The trio only cut two titles, and they never did much, but having a record made it much easier to get booked out of town. “Relax Jack” on side one is a hep-cat number, reminiscent of Page Cavanaugh, full of riffs and jive talk that sound a little dated now. The flip side, “Altitude,” with its intricate ensemble passages and thoughtful interplay, holds up much better.
Sometime before coming to New York, Vivian and Arv married. Vivian remembered that the ceremony was in St. Louis and done more out of respect for Arv’s mother than anything else. “She was a strong and very possessive woman who had a complete hold on her only child. All I did was temporarily take her place. I fixed his soup and sandwiches twice a day the way she used to, arranged for all the hotel and travel accommodations, picked out all his clothes, and paid the bills.”
“We were having a ball on the road together rehearsing, going to movies, swimming, but I don’t think we ever knew what love was. I could never crack the veneer between him and his mother. We were living for the moment without any long-term goals. We never talked about buying a home or insurance, or current events or anything else substantial, and as I’m sitting here, I realize that I really never knew him at all. Imagine being married to someone for 10 years, someone you think you are in love with, and then you realize you never really knew them at all. It’s kind of sad. Still, I’d have to say that those days were the highlight of my life, especially the Hollywood scene.”
The Garry Trio had done well in New York, so when they decided to try Los Angeles, as many other jazz musicians were doing in 1945, their good reputation preceded them. Otherwise, they would have been lost in Lotus Land, dwarfed by the number of jazz giants living there. There’s a picture in a Metronome magazine from that time showing Arv and Viv at a UCLA jazz concert surrounded by 22 of the biggest names in jazz, including Lester Young, Miles Davis, and Benny Carter. The caption reads, “… an amazing cross-section of the musical world.” What’s more, they were all living in L.A.
The city even had its own version of New York’s 52nd Street called Central Avenue, a two-block cluster of jazz joints with signs out front saying “Bebop spoken here.” And for a short time, you could hear the music on a dozen different radio stations programmed by some of the most outrageous disk jockeys ever to man a turntable, Steve Allen among them.
Jazz fever was so high in LA. when Arv and Viv first arrived that club owners were hiring three name acts a night. Vivian remembered opening at the Royal Room opposite Erroll Garner and Ray Bauduc: “We were all set to make our debut when Teddy Kaye informed me that he wanted to go back to New York to be with his friend. I was furious. There we were, all ready to open, and no piano player. Then somebody told me about Wini Beatty, who had been playing with Frankie Laine and Slim Gaillard. I wasn’t sure how two girls would work out, but the audience loved us, and we were held over for a whole month. We worked at the Radio Room after that, where we made those records for Lou Finston’s Sarco label. He wanted the arranger, George Handy, on piano rather than Wini, because Handy had written some tunes for the date that Finston wanted to record.”
A few years ago, Onyx Records reissued the session under the name Central Avenue Breakdown, Volume I. Two of the selections, “Tonsilectomy” and “These Foolish Things,” are among the best examples of Arv Garrison’s style. The former is a complex “up and at ’em” chart that would make good background for a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Arv’s guitar sound is crisp, his phrasing exceptionally smooth as he breezes through his solo with such sure-fingered flair that it’s hard to believe be had never played the tune before. “These Foolish Things” is all Arv, everything from those high voltage twangs to the dive bomber runs into the low register. Handy was so impressed with Arv’s work that he asked him to play with Charlie Parker on the first of a series of bebop sessions for Dial Records.
Handy, the appointed leader of the date, wasn’t the only one who wanted Arv. Parker wanted him too. He had played with Arv and Vivian on 52nd Street, and more recently at Billy Berg’s in the heart of Hollywood. Moreover, Garrison had been a regular at the Finale Club, an after-hours bebop citadel where Parker was booking the acts.
Garrison was one of the few guitarists at that time who had the technique and imagination to play bebop. Most of the L.A. jazz community didn’t like the new music because of the stop-and-go rhythms, the slightly dissonant chords, and frantic tempos. One critic compared bop to being in a hardware store during an earthquake.
Arv made three records with the Charlie Parker Septet — “Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite,” and “Night in Tunisia.” The three have become part of the basic library of jazz, but there is not much Garrison. He was also on one Dial session with Dizzy Gillespie — “Diggin’Diz.” In those days, one side of a record was three minutes long at the most, meaning that in a seven-piece group, no one is going to get much solo space. Arv’s 16 bars on the second take of “Yardbird Suite” is his longest statement. That amounts to about half a paragraph, hardly enough time to develop an idea. Arv’s role is to blend in with the ensemble, to keep things flowing and to lay down a good beat.
“A Night in Tunisia”
He had a similar role on some little-known Dial recordings with Howard McGhee — “Dialated Pupils,” “Midnight at Minton’s,” “Up in Dodo’s Room,” and “High Wind in Hollywood.” McGhee was one of the leading exponents of bop trumpet.
“Midnight at Minton’s”
“Up in Dodo’s Room”
“High Wind in Hollywood”
More obscure are the sides Arv and Viv did with Vic Dickenson and Leo Watson, the madman of scat. Jazz critic Leonard Feather was the producer and Arv’s most influential advocate. Chuck Wayne and Arv were his two favorite guitarists of 1946.
“Tight and Gay”
“The record Arv was most proud of was “Five Guitars in Flight,” an arrangement he wrote for the brass-happy Earle Spencer orchestra. It was the first time that a guitar ensemble had ever performed within a big band, like a saxophone section. Tony Rizzi, one of the five guitarists on that historic session, told me that his current group, Five Guitars Plus Four, is an extension of Arv’s original idea.
“Five Guitars in Flight”
Meanwhile, the Vivian Garry Trio had become the darlings of Sunset Strip and a personal favorite of Lana Turner, Howard Hughes, and other Hollywood celebrities. Metronome’s Barry Ulanov heard the group at the Morocco and wrote, “The trio has a brilliant originator on guitar and two charming women to flank him with hipness in their voices and drive in their playing.” They were commercially and artistically successful, something that eludes most instrumental combos. In July, 1946, they made the cover of Down Beat magazine, a distinction that might compare to winning a Grammy these days.
That was the summer they played on Catalina Island. It was the best three months of Arv’s life. He was healthy, happily married, and one of the best jazz guitar players in America, on top of the world at age 25.
In October, pianist Wini Beatty noticed a change. “We were working at Slapsie Maxie’s, a swank club on Wilshire Boulevard. Those were the days of live broadcasts, and we would go on the air for 10 minutes. We were on the air one night, and right in the middle of an instrumental chorus, I happened to look at Arv’s face. It went completely blank, and suddenly his hands fell down over the guitar, making a strumming effect. Viv and I looked at each other, and we must have turned white right through our sun-tans. We immediately jumped into the vocal part to try to cover it up. Nobody noticed anything, and all of a sudden, Arv recovered and everything was fine. That was the first time I realized that there was some kind of trouble here. I left the group not long after that, and Teddy Kaye flew out to rejoin them. They played in California for a little while, then all three returned to New York.”
“I didn’t hear from Arv again until 1956. I was working at the Howard Manor in Palm Springs, when I got a long distance call from Arv saying he was coming out west to see me and to play a little guitar. I tried to discourage him, because I knew there wasn’t enough work out here for him, but he came anyway When I went down to pick him up, I realized that this was a different person from the one I remembered. He was angry and foul-mouthed. He talked spasmodically while glancing off into space for 15 seconds at a time. Worse, he was broke. I found him a place to stay and got him some food at a coffee shop. Then, very late one night, I let him sit in with me at the Manor. It was so pathetic, he couldn’t play a lick. His hands were moving, but his coordination was gone. Finally, the manager came over and whispered in my ear something like, ‘Get that creep who is trying to play guitar off the bandstand.’ I made up a story about the strict union rules regarding guests so Arv’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. After a week, I called his mother in Toledo and told her what was happening. She hung up on me. Nothing was wrong with Arv as far as she was concerned.”
Most of what was wrong had to do with Arv’s central nervous system. The epilepsy of his childhood had returned, but it was no longer mild. It was like a brief electrical storm going off in the back of his brain, causing him to black out and to lose control of his bladder.
The Garry trio remained a top act in New York until 1949. The 1948 edition, with Toledoan El Myers on piano, was especially good. Myers, still one of the best piano players in Toledo, reminisced about his days with Viv and Arv:
“I was 22 when I joined them, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I had heard them in person and listened to all their records. I had Teddy Kaye’s part down when I joined, which really impressed Vivian. We did a couple of weeks in Toledo, then we went to the Royal Roost in New York, where we shared the stage with some very big stars of jazz. I was too young to realize the significance of what I was experiencing, but I did find out that being a New York jazz musician was not for me. I don’t think Arv’s condition had anything to do with it, although he was having those 20-second spells where he would black out and become incontinent I noticed that they would come when somebody important, like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie, was in the audience. So, I always thought they were stress-induced. When I left in the fall of 1948, I could have predicted what would happen.”
Soon after that, Vivian flew to California to visit her ailing father and never flew back. She was ashamed of herself for doing that to Arv, but she’d watched him have seizures for so long, she felt that she was having them herself. Week after week went by without any communication. Vivian wouldn’t return his phone calls or write him a letter. Then one day she received some divorce papers in the mail from his mother.
Devastated and bitter, Arv returned to 3346 Upton Avenue, where he remained for the rest of his life under the watchful eye of his doting mother. It took years for him to get over Vivian, but he never recovered from the debilitating effects of epilepsy, a word his mother never used. She preferred attributing his mood shifts and migraine headaches to the medication Arv was taking for “a blow to his temple” that he’d suffered in high school.
The worse he got, the more he practiced. He played until he couldn’t play anymore, sometimes falling asleep with the guitar still in his hands. By 1957, he was pretty well washed up. There were some flashes of the old Arv, but not many. The young guitar players who used to come from all over the area just to hear him sit in with Harold Lindsey at the M and L, or with Jimmy Jones at the old Hollywood Cocktail Lounge, stopped coming. Many of the local musicians who would have been flattered to play with him when he was on top wanted no part of him now. Even his dad, who had always been so proud of Arvin’s accomplishments, told a friend one day that he was sorry his son ever got into the music business for all the pain it caused him.
Arv was having five to six blackouts a day. To make matters worse, he was mixing his medicine with uppers and downers and whatever else he could get his hands on. Swimming or driving a car could be fatal.
Garrison tried selling vacuum cleaners for awhile, then went to work for the railroad. He lasted half a day. After that, he gave guitar lessons. Arv could show you a chord or call you up in the middle of the night to play some newly discovered voicing, but he wasn’t a teacher.
Around 2 p.m. on July 30, 1960, Arv Garrison dove off the high board at Centennial Quarry. A lifeguard discovered his body three hours later in 25 feet of water. He had suffered his last convulsion.
Pat Purcell was one of the last people to see him alive. She lived next door to Arv and dated him when he first came back from New York. “He’d be out on the porch playing his guitar, then suddenly the music would stop, and I’d look over and he’d be staring out into space like be was in a trance of something. After a few minutes, he’d start playing again. Toward the end, he looked like a whipped dog, all bloated and out of shape. I remember the day he died as if it were yesterday. His folks really died with him. They went on breathing and all, but they never came out of their house after that.” ■
Robert Dietsche has taught courses in jazz history at Oregon colleges and universities and was the longtime host of “Jazzville” on Oregon Public Broadcasting radio. He is the founder and former owner of Django Records, Portland’s legendary used-record store. His writings about jazz have appeared in numerous publications, including Jazz Journal, The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Pittsburgh Press, and the Toledo Blade. His history of jazz in Portland, Jump Town, was published by OSU Press in 2005. His latest book, Tatum’s Town, chronicles the untold story of jazz in his hometown, Toledo, Ohio.