March 9, 1935-February 12, 2020
In the early morning hours of Wednesday, February 12, 2020, a giant sequoia tree fell into the middle of the New England Seacoast jazz community —a metaphor for the death of pianist Larry Garland, who for nearly 40 years was an inspiration to generations of area musicians young and old. Presiding over the Larry Garland Tuesday Night Jazz Jam at The Press Room since the mid-’70s, Larry welcomed both pros and wannabees to his bandstand, and whether it turned out to be a brilliant musical event or a train wreck, Larry was always gracious, offering appropriate combinations of kudos and encouragement.
Because of his failing health during the past several years, Mr. Garland has not regularly been on the Tuesday night Press Room gig, but the weekly session continues as always, and is named the Larry Garland Jazz Jam, in honor of its founding father. These days, the first two Tuesday nights of each month are given over to River City Jazz, the group that Larry led for those many years: Woody Allen, guitar; Jeff Auger, piano; Jim Lyden, bass; and Gary Gemmiti, drums. The other Tuesday nights are managed by the multi-instrumentalist Chris Klaxton, with a rotating lineup of host groups. But whoever’s on the bandstand, it’s Larry’s spirit that still pervades the room.
When word of Larry Garland’s passing began to spread across the Seacoast, the expressions of sadness and praise came fast and heartfelt from musicians and fans.
Larry was “one of the most unique and experimental pianists to grace the jazz scene in Portsmouth,” declared the saxophonist, pianist and educator Charlie jennison. And the phrase “one of a kind” showed up more than once. Indeed, Larry blazed his own path in music. Self-taught, he never learned to read music. He was a true improviser who, as the bassist George Blodgett put it, “never played the same chord once!” Being on the bandstand with Larry in charge was always an adventure. Calling the name of a tune and counting the tempo was okay for other leaders, maybe, but not for Larry. He’d just launch into a tune, and you’d better be paying attention, because the ride had begun and you were on board.
The multi-instrumentalist Jon Ross, one of the foremost musicians on the Seacoast, who earlier and for several years had been Larry’s Tuesday night bassist, said “Few people figure larger in my development as a musician than Larry Garland.” Posting on Facebook, drummer Gary Gemmiti wrote, “Words cannot express how grateful I am for all the (musical) moments I was fortunate enough to share with you. It was a great ride.” And Chris Klaxton commented, “Larry Garland taught me a lot, just by accepting me and playing music with me when I was a very young man.”
The Press Room’s Tuesday Night Jam was not the only tradition launched at the Portsmouth venue by Larry. The little-known story behind the story is that when original owner Jay Smith opened The Press Room back in 1976 and decided to present jazz every Sunday night, Larry was his man. It was his gig. But as Larry told it, “These kids were coming in from Berklee [College of Music in Boston] with charts!” Given that Larry didn’t read music, he had some advice for Smith: “Get Tommy Gallant!” The Sunday Night Jazz tradition continues also to this day, now under the direction of pianist Ryan Parker.
Larry Garland was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, on March 9, 1935, the son of Malcolm Garland, a Baptist minister, and his wife Dorothy Garland, who played piano at home. Growing up, Larry got interested in music and taught himself the fundamentals by looking over his mother’s shoulder and trusting his good ears.
When he was old enough, he went off to join the Army in the ’50s and, having taught himself enough musical skills by that time, he ended up playing in the Army Band. While stationed in Bethesda, Maryland, he started hanging out with the musicians at the Bethesda School of Music and jamming with them. It was in that context that Larry, still in his twenties, got to play with musicians like Chet Baker, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. Pretty heady stuff for the young musician.
When he got out of the Army, Larry lived with his family in Lynn, Massachusetts, and played with a lot of the North Shore and Boston area music legends like Herb Pomeroy and Charlie Mariano, players who appreciated Larry's great ear and his natural creativity.
Larry Garland died in the comfort of his home at the age of 84.
He is survived by his children Kent (Kathy) Garland; Gregory (Rhonda) Garland and Jennifer Garland; five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren; his former wife Sandy Campbell Fowler; his longtime friend and caregiver Riv Rivers and many, many friends and fans.
He was predeceased by his brother Paul and his son Scott.
A celebration of the life and music of this extraordinary artist is planned for Tuesday, April 7, 5-10 pm at The Press Room.
Listen to This
As admired as Larry was for his piano playing, he was equally praised for his vocalizing. The tune “Weaver of Dreams” was one of his favorites, arguably his signature song. On this sound clip, Larry accompanies himself on piano, with Terry Keefe on tenor sax, Peter Kontrimas on bass, Nat Maguvero on drums.
Weaver of Dreams
The following clip showcases Larry's singing at its very best. In this case, he’s accompanied by Barry Velleman on piano, along with Calvin Hill, bass, and Ray Davis, drums.
Young and Foolish