Jim Burns

It has often been my contention that minor figures in the arts can provide a better picture of a period than more-successful writers, artists, and musicians. Their work reflects what was happening stylistically in its range of references. This can be seen as a limiting factor if they failed to move on, but it should not be a reason for neglecting what they did achieve, albeit in a small way.

It’s doubtful if the name of guitarist Arvin Garrison will arouse much response, even among jazz historians and enthusiasts. If he’s known at all, it’s probably because of his presence in a group that Charlie Parker led on a 1946 recording session for Dial Records in Los Angeles. But Garrison, in his short career, had made something of a name for himself as a leading exponent of modern guitar soloing on the West Coast. The appearance of a 3-CD compilation of just about every known recording on which he appeared (or at least soloed) gives listeners an opportunity to judge his capabilities.

Garrison was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. I’m not intending to provide a biographical account of Garrison’s life. It’s the music I’m mainly interested in. In any case, biographical details are not easy to come by. Reminiscences by his ex-wife, Vivien Garry, and friends, refer to him as being unworldly in the sense of not able to cope with the mundane facts of everyday life: “Garrison wasn’t exactly a worldly man. Guitar simple might be more like it. Geography, politics, ball scores, even balancing a chequebook were beyond his comprehension. He was a mama’s boy who never got around to leaving mom. She taught him how to read music and placed him at the centre 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”.

Vivien Garry had met Garrison in Toledo where he had been working with local groups, and determined to learn to play the double-bass so she could work with him. In due course they combined with a pianist named Bill Cummerow and formed the Vivien Garry Trio. As she later recalled: “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”.

That reference to Nat Cole might intrigue those who only know him as the singer Nat ‘King’ Cole who had hit records in the 1950s and later. But in the mid and late-1940s he worked extensively with a trio that, at one time or another, had Oscar Moore and Irving Ashby playing guitar. Cole also took part in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and appeared on records with Illinois Jacquet, Lester Young, and others. With his trio he specialised in smooth renditions of popular songs, novelty numbers, and relaxed piano and guitar improvisations. He was popular in night clubs and on records.

Garrison and Garry, with a new pianist named Teddy Kaye, moved to New York and were hired to appear at Kelly’s Stable, one of the small clubs along the fabled 52nd Street. It gave Garrison the opportunity to hear the new sounds of bebop as played by leading exponents of the style like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And the trio made its first recordings, two sides for Guild in June 1945. One of them, “Altitude”, was an instrumental number which showed that the guitarist was rapidly developing an approach to soloing which reflected influences from Django Reinhardt, Oscar Moore, and Charlie Christian, but had its own individual manner of phrasing. The other track, “Relax Jack”, was a composition by Garrison much in the style of Nat Cole or the Page Cavanaugh Trio, a popular group of the period. My recollections of hearing records by Cavanaugh are that it wasn’t as interesting from a jazz point of view as the Cole and Garry groups, but it was commercially successful.

It was when Garrison and Garry moved to California that they began to achieve a measure of popularity, particularly around Los Angeles. In December, 1945, the trio, boosted to a quartet by the addition of Roy Hall on drums and with George Handy taking over from Teddy Kaye at the piano, recorded half-a-dozen tracks for Sarco, a small label based in the city. It’s worth noting that, as opposed to Nat Cole, who was contracted to Capitol Records, and Page Cavanaugh, whose records were released on well-known labels like RCA and Columbia, Garry’s trio seemed fated to have links to only small  companies. As a consequence, their records probably had only limited distribution.

A notable fact about the Sarco session was the involvement of George Handy. A pianist and composer/arranger, he worked with the forward-looking Boyd Raeburn orchestra. It’s not surprising that a couple of the compositions used by Garry’s group were also in the Raeburn book. “Where You At?” was a novelty number in the hip format of the time, and “Tonsillectomy” was a medium-tempo instrumental feature. Garrison’s guitar skills are in evidence on both.

It may have been Handy who was responsible for Garrison’s presence at a recording date for the newly-established Dial label. Ross Russell, who owned the Tempo record shop in Hollywood, had decided to launch Dial as a platform for the new music, bebop. It’s perhaps indicative of the period that Russell, who had written pulp fiction and served in the Merchant Marine during the war, hadn’t initially decided whether to open a record shop or use the money to break into screenwriting. He later commented that he luckily made the right choice. Most of his contacts among the writers he knew in Hollywood were blacklisted when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started its investigations into communist activity in the film capital in 1947.

The Dial date turned out to be chaotic, with only one number, “Diggin’ Diz”, being recorded. Russell’s inexperience as a producer, and the problem of “a small army of hipsters”, who had arrived with the musicians, getting in the way, limited what could be achieved. But it did show that Garrison was competent enough to be working alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

A second Dial session with Garrison in a rhythm-team backing Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and tenorman Lucky Thompson was much more successful. Tracks such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Ornithology”, “A Night in Tunisia”, and “Moose the Mooch” (the nickname of Bird’s narcotics supplier In Los Angeles) are rightly seen as important items in the recorded evidence of Parker’s visit to California. As for Garrison, he was completely at home with the “complexities of the new music” and “delivered some of his most nimble Reinhardt-influenced playing on record”.

1946 was the key year in Garrison’s career and his standing among the West Coast practitioners of bebop was further emphasised when he took part in a recording session under trumpeter Howard McGhee’s name. Again, he was in good company. McGhee was one of the leading bebop trumpet players, tenor saxophone Teddy Edwards among the first in Los Angeles to pick up on the new sounds, and the talented but ill-fated pianist Dodo Marmarosa was admired by a wide range of musicians and critics. He worked well with the guitar-player in the rhythm-section. As for Garrison. he “let his solo playing breathe, utilising space as much as he employed fretted notes”.  

The appearances at recording sessions were, of course, in addition to the work Garrison was doing with the Vivian Garry Trio in clubs around Los Angeles. The group additionally participated In a number of broadcasts for the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), one of which spotlights Garrison in the up-tempo “Mop Mop” and another with the group backing singer Frankie Laine. In the 1950s he became well-known for his versions of “High Noon”, “Blowing Wild”, and other film-related songs, but in the mid-1940s he was slowly establishing himself in the Los Angeles night-clubs.

The group also provided support on records by the little-known vocalist, Rickey Jordan, and the extrovert Leo Watson, best described as a scat-singer. He had some currency in the late-1930s and early-1940s, but his performances are hard to take today. Still, the records with the Garry Trio and singers do have spaces for solo guitar by Garrison and piano stylings by Wini Beatty. But his most-striking performances can be heard on some of the AFRS broadcasts, especially on a couple of versions of what was often referred to as the boppers’ National Anthem, “How High the Moon”, where his fleet improvising is impressive. The trio also gave a nod to its need to appeal to a wider audience than bebop enthusiasts when it performed the novelty number, “Rip Van Winkle”, another George Handy tune that the Boyd Raeburn band recorded.

A 1947 return to New York found the Trio engaged at The Famous Door night-club and making an appearance on the “Saturday Night Swing Session” broadcast over radio station WNEW. There were good work-outs on “Lover man” and “Indiana”, as well as the cute “The Three Bears”, a song also used by Page Cavanaugh and, in Britain, by Ray Ellington, whose group became well-known for its contributions to The Goons radio shows in the 1950s. Ellington neatly blended modern jazz with humorous vocals. On the WNEW show, the Garry Trio can also be heard behind bop singer Babs Gonzales, though like Leo Watson he’s an acquired taste. What may have seemed entertaining at the time comes across now as faintly embarrassing in its aim to be up-to-date and in the bebop mode.

It seems that not all was well with the group. Garry and Garrison were having difficulties in their personal relationship, and the guitarist was showing signs of epileptic seizures which affected the group’s performances. Garry, looking back on their marriage, said that essentially all she had done was take his mother’s 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”. There were a few recordings in 1948, mostly featuring El Myers, the new singer and pianist with the group, but by mid-1948 Garry was in Los Angeles and Garrison was back in Toledo with his mother.

Little was heard about Garrison after 1948. He worked in clubs in Toledo in the early-1950s, but his problems with epilepsy were increasingly affecting him and by the mid-1950s he was in poor condition. Wini Beatty allowed him to sit in with the group she was leading at a club in Palm Springs in 1956, but had to ask him to leave the stand: “It was so pathetic. He couldn’t play a lick. His hands were moving, but his coordination had gone”. His one great obsession, the guitar apart, had been swimming and he died in 1960 after he had a seizure while in the water and drowned.

Was Arv Garrison a major musician? Probably not, but he was a very good one, and seen as having a lot to offer when at his best in the period between 1946 and 1948. Musicians admired his playing and  well-regarded critics like Leonard Feather and Barry Ulanov spoke highly of his work. The potential was there, but it’s impossible to know if it would have resulted in anything significant, even if he hadn’t been held back by epilepsy. We simply have to listen to what he did produce in his short career and enjoy that.


The basis for this essay was the 3-CD set, complete with a 76-page booklet full of facts and photos, issued by Fresh Sound Records of Barcelona (catalogue number FSR-1104). For anyone interested in placing Garrison in context, particularly when he was in California, I recommend Central Avenue Sounds, edited by Clora Bryant and others, published by University of California Press, 1998. He’s not actually mentioned in this book, but it offers a vibrant picture of what was a colourful and often creative scene in which he was involved.