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Joe Garrison’s terrifying reality

“You could lose your job over one string, and there’s over 200 strings!”

Joe Garrison, happy to no longer be The Piano Man.
Joe Garrison, happy to no longer be The Piano Man.

Composer Joe Garrison hit a milestone birthday last year, right in the midst of the pandemic, and decided, at long last, that he was sick of music. Or at least, with the piano tuning aspect of it. Garrison has made his living tuning and servicing the anachronistic behemoth for decades, but he isn’t looking back on it fondly. “I hate pianos,” says Garrison. “I never want to see one again. I was trying to remember the sequence the other day, and I couldn’t do it. And I was glad I couldn’t do it.” Garrison does remember his last instrument, however: “It was the piano in Mark Dresser’s office at UCSD, on June 30th, 2021.”

Garrison has had a steady gig at the University for years. “When you are young, you think you’re gonna live forever, but when I turned 70, it got real all of a sudden. The pressure of tuning an instrument for a famous artist is incredible. I did a lot of concerts, man, and the piano has got to stay in tune. That’s terrifying. That’s what the public doesn’t understand. If Ahmad Jamal hits a unison that’s out of tune, that’s a crisis, that’s a disaster. You could lose your job over one string, and there’s over 200 strings!”

That kind of stress was bound to take a toll. “It really matters. That was like my religion. But I got about 19 years into it, and all of a sudden I started to have real pain in my back and shoulder. I started going to this real heavyweight massage guy, just to keep me going. It was degrading to the point where I was in constant pain all the time.”

Over the years, Garrison has tuned thousands of instruments. “I was kind of on auto-pilot. I would tune two to four instruments a day, five to seven days a week.” He worked with some of the best musicians on the planet. “I tuned for Wynton Marsalis three times, I tuned for John Legend and Ahmad Jamal, but [UCSD professor] Aleck Karis could actually make me cry.”

Garrison kept odd hours at the university. “Holy shit. I was out there at three in the morning, all the time. I had five pounds of keys on me. One time, I misplaced my keys and I couldn’t find them for about a week. They were going to kill me, because it was going to cost them like $20,000 to replace them. Luckily, the stage manager found them, but they were not happy.”

Now that he’s retired from the physically taxing job of piano tuning, Garrison ostensibly has plenty of time to work on his composing. He’s been writing charts for many years that defy easy categorization; there are heavy jazz elements, but there are also intricate, soaring modern classical components. He feels he’s at a crossroads, and he’s leaving it to his muse to decide what comes next. “Maybe the muse has cut me off, or maybe it’s just leading me to the next step. Maybe I’m not qualified to take it, so I have to be quiet. It’s like I’ve turned my back on everything I’ve done so far. I gotta up my game, man. I might not write music in this life or the next. I do have a ton of music that never got recorded and a ton that hasn’t been performed, or even rehearsed. As of now, the plan is to put the recordings up on Bandcamp under the umbrella title ‘Svaha.’”

In closing, Garrison offers a typically Zen-like observation. “I finally got off smoking cigars after 35-40 years. Since I have no pressing ambition to be a human being in the near future, I think it might be cool to be a tobacco weevil for the next 500 lives. Any of those forms will serve the purpose. However, as always, we defer to the muse.”

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Joe Garrison, happy to no longer be The Piano Man.
Joe Garrison, happy to no longer be The Piano Man.

Composer Joe Garrison hit a milestone birthday last year, right in the midst of the pandemic, and decided, at long last, that he was sick of music. Or at least, with the piano tuning aspect of it. Garrison has made his living tuning and servicing the anachronistic behemoth for decades, but he isn’t looking back on it fondly. “I hate pianos,” says Garrison. “I never want to see one again. I was trying to remember the sequence the other day, and I couldn’t do it. And I was glad I couldn’t do it.” Garrison does remember his last instrument, however: “It was the piano in Mark Dresser’s office at UCSD, on June 30th, 2021.”

Garrison has had a steady gig at the University for years. “When you are young, you think you’re gonna live forever, but when I turned 70, it got real all of a sudden. The pressure of tuning an instrument for a famous artist is incredible. I did a lot of concerts, man, and the piano has got to stay in tune. That’s terrifying. That’s what the public doesn’t understand. If Ahmad Jamal hits a unison that’s out of tune, that’s a crisis, that’s a disaster. You could lose your job over one string, and there’s over 200 strings!”

That kind of stress was bound to take a toll. “It really matters. That was like my religion. But I got about 19 years into it, and all of a sudden I started to have real pain in my back and shoulder. I started going to this real heavyweight massage guy, just to keep me going. It was degrading to the point where I was in constant pain all the time.”

Over the years, Garrison has tuned thousands of instruments. “I was kind of on auto-pilot. I would tune two to four instruments a day, five to seven days a week.” He worked with some of the best musicians on the planet. “I tuned for Wynton Marsalis three times, I tuned for John Legend and Ahmad Jamal, but [UCSD professor] Aleck Karis could actually make me cry.”

Garrison kept odd hours at the university. “Holy shit. I was out there at three in the morning, all the time. I had five pounds of keys on me. One time, I misplaced my keys and I couldn’t find them for about a week. They were going to kill me, because it was going to cost them like $20,000 to replace them. Luckily, the stage manager found them, but they were not happy.”

Now that he’s retired from the physically taxing job of piano tuning, Garrison ostensibly has plenty of time to work on his composing. He’s been writing charts for many years that defy easy categorization; there are heavy jazz elements, but there are also intricate, soaring modern classical components. He feels he’s at a crossroads, and he’s leaving it to his muse to decide what comes next. “Maybe the muse has cut me off, or maybe it’s just leading me to the next step. Maybe I’m not qualified to take it, so I have to be quiet. It’s like I’ve turned my back on everything I’ve done so far. I gotta up my game, man. I might not write music in this life or the next. I do have a ton of music that never got recorded and a ton that hasn’t been performed, or even rehearsed. As of now, the plan is to put the recordings up on Bandcamp under the umbrella title ‘Svaha.’”

In closing, Garrison offers a typically Zen-like observation. “I finally got off smoking cigars after 35-40 years. Since I have no pressing ambition to be a human being in the near future, I think it might be cool to be a tobacco weevil for the next 500 lives. Any of those forms will serve the purpose. However, as always, we defer to the muse.”

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