Piano wizard Mike Garson talks upcoming Bowie celebration, working with Reznor and why the world needs music now more than ever

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“I gathered 37 musicians and alumni who played with David from as early as 1969 all the way to the last album. Then I started asking a lot of my friends, great singers like Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, Gavin Rossdale, Perry Farrell, Ian Astbury, Andra Day, Judith Hill, Duran Duran–it’s endless!”

While preparing for an epic tribute to musical legend and long-time collaborator David Bowie on what would have been his 74th birthday, Mike Garson spoke about his role as show producer, emcee and pianist while playing the blues from his California studio.

“It’s about a 15-hour day everyday, but very rewarding. I’m doing half the songs like we know them from the records, but I’m doing another half with whole new arrangements that I’m making–string quartet, orchestra, jazz things.”

The upcoming livestream of A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day commemorates a giant body of work, its impact on other artists and the goal of lifting spirits around the world. The 75-year-old jazz and classical player also shared stories of his career beginnings, being in the famed Spiders From Mars, working on film scores with the likes of Trent Reznor, and shed some light on some ‘90s-era Bowie live material that has recently surfaced. 

“January 8th is five years since David passed and it’s his birthday. I was supposed to be on tour around the world doing 100 concerts, well that’s not happening until we get a lot of people vaccinated, so I decided to do it virtually. I spoke to the Bowie estate and I’m allowed to do one 24-hour stream.”

As his team of professionals put the finishing touches on the production, Garson promised a great virtual concert that’s far better than any Zoom call. He said there will be something for everybody, and cited his recent additions of Adam Lambert and new English star YungBlud who recently scored a number one album. A portion of the proceeds are going to Save The Children, a charity important to Bowie. 

“This’ll be the biggest show of the year. You never get this much talent in one space, but we only get that 24 hours. This is going to change people’s lives, and that’s what music is supposed to do, especially in these times, you know?”  

Mike Garson photographed by Steve Rose

In addition to 15-hour days of pre-production and rehearsals, the acclaimed pianist is promoting a new music educational tool called Playground Sessions with the hope that humans can find peace in this year of chaos. 

“I’ve seen a million programs, but it’s actually a very good one–good for kids and good for adults too. I saw that Quincy [Jones] was backing it, and then I tested it out myself. I wasn’t good at teaching little kids, I was good at teaching professionals and adults. But this program has little games with it, it’s online, there are instructors and it’s fun to do it. Any keyboard will work, but you can get their package with the keyboard which is very cool. You know, there’s a lot of products that just rip people off. It’s a great app, it’s very simple.”   

As a lifelong instructor, he said Playground Sessions has brought him great joy by allowing him to work with his grandchildren. Garson believes the more people that learn an instrument, the better the world can become. After more than 60 years as a professional player, he said the piano is still a soul-saver. 

“For me, the piano and the keyboard have always been prime to my existence and it has healed me and pulled me out of many rough situations including the pandemic. I was on tour with Bowie alumni in March and my whole tour got cut, so I came home, lost a fortune of money and I was depressed. What did I start doing? Playing piano.” 

He explained that making an impact on just one person is a beautiful thing, and would even give lessons on the road while on tour with Bowie. 12,000 students later, Garson still wishes he could have had a greater reach, and it’s one of the many reasons he supports the new program.

“I believe that every person from two years old should play an instrument, I’m very emphatic about that. I gave a lecture 13 years ago to 1,200 piano teachers, and my theory was ‘if everyone would play an instrument from two years old, then there’d be less war.’ It was just a theory I made up. It made sense to me because music is very healing. That’s why the Playground Sessions is so good because I was always frustrated that I can’t teach millions of people.”

Before his decades of working alongside the British Elvis, the native New Yorker said he started playing at age seven. Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Garson described his upbringing and recounted that every house in his neighborhood had a piano in it.

“My mom played and my dad played and my sister played, and I kind of took to it. By the time I was 12, I did my first concert. I was pretty good. At 14, I started making a living playing professionally–which would be actually 61 years ago and I’ve never stopped. I don’t know how to do anything else, so that’s all I do is keep playing the piano. I love it more than ever, actually.

David Bowie and Mike Garson photographed at Olympic Studios in 1974 by Kate Simon

While his talent was evident at a young age, Garson still struggled to put food on the table. He straddled between giving lessons at home and playing jazz clubs in Manhattan, but all of that changed in 1972. Garson’s Brooklyn accent and palpable sense of humor shone through as he told the story of the fateful meeting.

“I’d just come from a jazz gig two days earlier with some great musicians. There were five people in the club and I made five dollars. And I think to myself, ‘The rent is $150 a month, I’d have to do 30 shows, and then what about the food and the telephone bill?’ I said something stupid to my wife, ‘Maybe I should go out with a famous rock group?’ So, watch what you wish for, two days later Bowie called.”

He remembered that his wife almost killed him after he left a student to watch over their daughter and drove to the RCA offices, Bowie’s label at the time. Garson recalled seeing iconic guitarist Mick Ronson sitting at the piano upon arrival. 

“The whole Spiders and David were decked out like it was a concert, it was in the middle of the (expletive) week! I don’t have a clue what was going on, so I sit down at the piano and play ‘Changes.’ Seven seconds later, Ronson says, ‘You got the gig.’ I got hired for eight weeks and I ended up doing 20 albums and 1,000 concerts with him 30-40 years later.”

After becoming a member of the infamous Spiders From Mars, Garson’s piano then cemented the sound of Aladdin Sane, the follow-up to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. His jazz chords and weird stabs peppered the entire album, helping make it an inspirational, fan favorite all these years later.

“If you take ‘Lady Grinning Soul,’ I took a classical, kind of romantic approach. ‘Time,’ I took an old jazz 1930s-feel and I mixed it up with some crazy avant-garde music. ‘Aladdin Sane’ is just two chords, and it was David Bowie who said, ‘Play something out there.’ Because it was framed with a great beat, it was a no-brainer. David was very bright, he had me bring the jazz and classical history and put it like whipped cream on cake on top of some hard rock and roll. It made for a new sound. It would separate him from Dylan or the Rolling Stones, which were amazing bands, but now he had this crazy guy who’s a jazz musician playing all these jazz chords.”

Garson has been credited as the most frequent and longest-lasting of Bowie’s endlessly changing live groups during the singer’s 40-plus years of performing.  

“From ‘72 to ‘74, what people don’t know is, he fired five bands. I was the only one he kept, because he was changing styles. He was moving at an incredible pace. But it was like, I’m with the Spiders, all of the sudden there’s no Spiders. And then all of the sudden he wants to do soul music, and we’re doing Diamond Dogs. Most of the time it was just me and him messing around doing ‘Sweet Thing/Candidate’ and some of those pieces.” 

Though the working relationship was far from over, the two artists went their separate ways in the mid-’70s. Garson returned to the jazz world, and Bowie moved on to a more experimental series of projects like the Station to Station album and starring in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth

Mike Garson photographed by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Experimentation with music was not exclusive to The Thin White Duke’s career, though. As keyboardist and composer, Garson created a Symphonic Suite For Healing in 2014 with neurosurgeon Dr. Christopher Duma to explore music’s healing effects on afflictions of the brain.

“We tested out about 30 pieces of my music with 100 patients. They chose their favorite 30, and I picked my favorite 12 from that, and it became a symphonic healing suite. I had a jazz singer, opera singer, I had an orchestra, I even did ‘Space Oddity’ with kids.”

Dr. Duma’s nonprofit Foundation for Neurosciences, Stroke and Recovery commissioned the project, and after the initial testing, Garson led 44 instrumentalists along with a 55-voice children’s choir in concert at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Concert Hall. 

“A Parkinson’s patient who could hardly walk danced a tango that I wrote for her on stage with her husband–very powerful. I worked in Vanderbilt with children with autism and did some research on that with some scientists and doctors. I just know intuitively that music heals and it’s an energy that we need.”

The entire production was recorded with the goal of making it available as therapy to patients, as well as raising awareness of music’s potential as medicine. Garson conceded that this is a new frontier, but said his life’s work as a teacher and musician have already proven it’s validity.

“I just knew that if I write these pieces, it will affect people in a good way. It’s just that it was way ahead of his time, people couldn’t understand, ‘What are you talking about, doctors and music and healing?’–it didn’t compute. Now it’s coming into the consciousness of society, but it wasn’t seen that way when I did this piece six-seven years ago.”

Left to right: Mark Plati, Sterling Campbell, Tony Visconti and Gail Ann Dorsey photographed by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day was announced on October 27 to great fanfare, and another update was dropped December 15 declaring the additions of Peter Frampton, Mott The Hoople frontman Ian Hunter and fellow key-wizard Rick Wakeman. As showrunner, Garson said he’s looking forward to playing with other veterans that contributed to the singer’s massive catalogue. 

“I got all these musicians, many have passed but many are alive. There must be 50 in the world, but I got 37. Nobody says no for some reason, I guess none of us are doing anything so we may as well play, you know?”

The live stalwart had difficulty containing his excitement as he went down the list of acquired talent for the virtual concert. Garson’s deep respect for his fellow Bowie cohorts became obvious as he discussed their contributions to the influential artist’s body of work.

“I have Bernard Fowler who was with the Rolling Stones 30 years, he’s singing a song. Cat Russell who was one of our backup vocalists from 2000 to about 2004, she’s a great singer. Gail Ann Dorsey, who was our bass player on the tours that we did in the 90s and 2000s, she’s going to do two songs.” 

The list of guitarists on the show roster is astonishing as well. Fans will undoubtedly recognize axe-wielders like Carlos Alomar from the Diamond Dogs and Berlin trilogy-era, Kevin Armstrong who performed on Tin Machine and Outside, Gery Leonard from Heathen and Reality, and Earl Slick who played lead on Young Americans and Station to Station. Garson’s assembled rhythm section is also just as impressive.

“I got Omar Hakim who played on Let’s Dance and Matt Chamberlain who’s playing with Lorde and is out with Dylan on drums. I have Greg Errico, who was Sly and the Family Stone’s first drummer, he played with me on the Diamond Dogs tour. Sterling Campbell who did the Reality tour, Zack Alford who did the Outside tour. Bass players, from Tony Visconti who played on The Man Who Sold The World, all the way to Tim Lefebvre who played on Blackstar. Carmine Rojas who played on Let’s Dance. I found the bass player [Emir Ksasan] who played on ‘Fame,’ I hadn’t worked with him for 46 years! This is authentic!”

Left to right: Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, David Bowie, Zack Alford and Reeves Gabrels photographed for 1997 promotional image

After 1975’s Young Americans, more than 15 years passed before the Starman and his favorite ivory-tickler would record together again. Their reunion during sessions for Buddha of Suburbia and Black Tie White Noise, both released in 1993, was the dawn of another artistically explosive period for Bowie. 

“We were in the studio around ‘92, he said, ‘The ‘80s killed me and it took the life out of me, I sold out a little bit. Something changed for me, I got to get back to myself and I will be putting a band together and do some records with the people who’ve influenced me the most in the last 30 years.’ So it’s Brian Eno, me, Carlos Alomar, Reeves [Gabrels], Sterling Campbell and Erdal [Kızılçay] at the time on bass, and we went and did Outside in Montreux [Switzerland], Queen’s studio. It’s a phenomenal album.”

The dense, sprawling soundscapes and segues created for the 1995 record featured layers upon layers of Garson’s stylized playing with noisey guitars from Gabrels atop the impeccable rhythm section. The resulting Outside creatively stands next to Bowie and Eno’s acclaimed Berlin-era work, though neither the album nor the singer shedding his pop star skin were met with much enthusiasm at the time. Its release and subsequent tour were often dismissed as Bowie’s attempt to emulate a darker, more aggressive sound found in younger acts of the day. 

“When I was on the Outside tour, his manager actually came to me and said, ‘Could you get him to do some commercial hits? We’re losing ticket sales, no one wants to see this (expletive), it’s too (expletive) up!’ I said, ‘Absolutely not, this is David Bowie, he has to do this.’ And within a year, we were back doing some hits, it’s just that he had to get it out of his system.”

The singer’s edgy return didn’t stop there, however. The gritty, Lynchian concept album was followed by 1997’s Earthling–a foree into ‘90s jungle and electronica, smashed into hard rock tunes by co-producers Gabrels and Mark Plati.

“Those crazy beats reminded me of jazz things that I grew up with. Again, where does David come to drum and bass music on the Earthling phase? I remember saying to him when we were in the studio, ‘I like what you’re doing because you’re bringing in melodies.’ The drum and bass stuff that I was hearing was fun, and then it got boring. But you add a beautiful melody, like on ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ or ‘Battle for Britain’–what a great album!”

Bowie’s Earthling live band consisted of Gabrels on guitar, Dorsey on bass and backing vocals, Alford on drums and, of course, Garson playing piano and synthesizers. Garson has since expressed a particular fondness for that lineup, and is excited the Bowie estate is now releasing some amazing live recordings from that era.

“I played in 13 bands with David, and in some ways that was my favorite band because we improvised every night differently. Everything we were playing wasn’t even like the original records. We were close, but David gave us all that freedom. I loved that–we could just take it out! Every night I was finding different sounds on keyboards and synths and playing the craziest (expletive)! I lost David one night where I played some chords that were so wrong he couldn’t even come back in key. So the next day he said, ‘Please Mike, do anything you want in the middle, just get me in the right (expletive) key and end right!’” 

Trent Reznor photographed by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Those releases and global treks introduced Bowie’s music to a new generation and created collaborative opportunities for his bandmates, like Garson’s recruitment by Billy Corgan to tour with the Smashing Pumpkins in 1998. Bowie also took one of these up-and-comers on the road–the incendiary and chaotic Nine Inch Nails.

“Around 1995, Bowie actually said to me, ‘This guy Trent Reznor, keep your eyes open, he’s the future.’ David was like a seer, like a prophet, he kind of knew. Nine Inch Nails were opening for us on the Outside tour. I got to listen to that band, I thought, ‘Jeez, these guys are really, really good.’ And then [Reznor] would be listening to the rehearsals and he’d be hearing me playing all this crazy stuff. We would just nod at each other [in the hall], we hadn’t even been introduced. The next thing I saw in Keyboard Magazine a year or two later, ‘Who would you like to most collaborate with next?’ and he says, ‘Mike Garson,’ and I’m thinking, ‘holy (expletive)!’” 

It was another two years before Garson found himself in a studio working on Reznor’s 1999 album, The Fragile. He played keyboard parts on 15 songs, three of which made it on the record. 20 years and a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction later, Reznor is a celebrated film composer who, along with musical companion Atticus Ross, continues to enlist help from musicians like Garson who contributed to the Gone Girl film and The Watchmen series soundtracks. Garson said he and Reznor have since become good friends. 

“He’s a genuine person and a great film composer. He just did the music to Mank and it’s like a jazz score! He would ask me questions when I was in New Orleans with him in the studio. He asked me about jazz musicians, and wanted to know everything I knew about music in the three days we were hanging out. He was like a sponge, and I’m thinking, ‘this is not your normal rock musician.’ The only other person I knew that was kind of like that was Bowie. I’ve been blessed to be around some great rock musicians and true artists. It’s nice to accompany them and make them sound better–and they make me sound better. It’s ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’, you know?” 

Mike Garson photographed by Steve Rose

Garson resumed his reflections on how music has impacted his life, from stealing his dad’s car when he was 15 to go to an obscure jazz store in Manhattan, to becoming a teacher and his career as Bowie’s piano man.

“I just turned out to be the longest-standing member. I guess because on a creative level we saw things similarly. We’re both very spontaneous, both like to create in the moment and both hard workers. He was one of a kind. And his last performance was with Alicia Keys and me in 2006, a benefit for AIDS, and we did ‘Changes’–I played piano, Alicia and him sang. So, my audition song was ‘Changes’ and the last piece that I played with him was ‘Changes.’”

He added that the confidence and comfort music can bring into a person’s life can not be understated, again citing Playground Sessions as a great tool to help students find their own voice. Garson said it’s easy to get overwhelmed, fall into peer pressure and lose your way in today’s world.

“People should be playing music in these times, and if they don’t want to play they should at least be listening. We each have our own gifts and we use them, but I think the common denominator is we’d have a much saner planet if more people would play music instead of focusing on all the garbage all the time. While we have to be aware of what’s going on, I think people need to look inward and have a purpose.”

Before returning to finish production on the 36-song Bowie extravaganza, Garson marveled at the army of talent he assembled. He promised an experience of deep cuts and a lot of hits during the three-and-a-half hours. The multi-talented musician said it’s a lot of work, but he’s absolutely thrilled.

“You could tune in, watch an hour, pick up an hour 10 hours later or sit there for three hours and eat popcorn and watch a concert. Peter Frampton, Lzzy Hale from Halestorm, Lena Hall, Michael C. Hall who did Lazarus–every one of them was touched by David in a big way. When I call these people, everyone is glad to contribute. I have Gary Oldman doing a song, who won an Oscar! We’re talking about a pretty strong influence. If this was 14-1500s, I’d say this is a Michelangelo or DaVinci kind of character, this David Bowie, wouldn’t you?”

For more information on the A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day, click here.

For more information on Playground Sessions, click here.

Follow Jeremiah Beaver at FOX59.com and on Twitter: @JerBearMedia

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