Pianist Mike Garson Looks Back on Friendship with David Bowie—“He Was Very Gracious as a Leader”

For Brooklyn, New York City-born musician, Mike Garson, there was no real accomplishment in music without the necessary, accompanying homework required to make him better. For Garson, who began playing piano in 1952 when he was seven years old, the instrument has been an important part of his life ever since. As he began to learn, he played for 20 or 30 minutes, but as the instrument started to consume him, he’d play for two hours. Later, he practiced in regular eight-hour shifts before heading to a late night, six-hour jazz gig. But, of course, his dedication paid off. It did so in a significant way when he received a phone call out of the blue from David Bowie, who asked Garson to try out for his Ziggy Stardust tour kicking off in 1972. Later, what began as a chance encounter eventually turned into a lifelong friendship and partnership. So much so, that when Bowie died in 2016, Garson had become Bowie’s longest tenured and most frequent band member. 

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“I had a plan,” Garson says. “I would do two hours of scale exercises. Then I’d work on harmony and theory. Then I’d devote the rest of the time to improvising, learning jazz solos and listening to other pianists and imitating them. Then I’d play a six-hour jazz gig. By the time Bowie called me. I was in pretty good shape.” 

Due to their decades-long friendship and collaborative relationship, Garson organized a livestream tribute to Bowie around the legendary artist’s birthday (January 9) called, A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day. It featured Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan and many more. And, Garson says, he’s working toward another in early 2022 —“if possible,” he says—to celebrate what would be Bowie’s 75th birthday. Just as Garson has a tried-and-true relationship to the piano, so did he have a closeness with Bowie. In total, he’d played over one thousand shows with Bowie and appeared on approximately 20 albums. But Garson also enjoyed a musical life outside Bowie’s sphere. He was a jazz musician, a classical composer and has since worked acts like Nancy Wilson, Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins.  

“I’ve been blessed to have done so many things,” Garson says. “I’ve written almost six-thousand pieces of music, half of it is classical. It’s been an interesting life. When you look back, you appreciate it more. It’s fascinating to think about who I was playing with, it was like working with Dylan or Jagger or the Beatles. But when you’re doing it, you never think that way. It’s like, ‘When will we be getting home?’”

Before he was a piano playing whirling dervish, Garson was a young person trying to figure out where he fit in music. At first, it started slow. But where some aspiring students might throw in the towel, Garson kept at it. When he wasn’t practicing enough at the outset, his mother would feign calling his piano teacher and pretend to cancel the lessons. Though the young Garson knew it was likely a ruse, it also showed him that he didn’t want to lose the lessons. Instead, he indicated in his gut that he wanted to continue. Today, the piano is as paramount to his daily routine. He’s even working with a new piano teaching app, Tomplay, for which he records hundreds of renditions of songs at various levels of difficulty. 

“Today,” Garson says, “I appreciate it more than ever. I appreciate the sound of the piano, especially if it’s a good piano. I love improvising and I love composing. I love arranging music. I’m 75 and a lot of people my age get burned out but I’m playing more than ever and I’m enjoying it even more.”

Thinking back, Garson says, Bowie was one of the best bandleaders he’s come across. As such, the Hall of Famer offered his band members space to be themselves on records. While he may have offered a direction, he trusted his players to perform. For example, when Garson came in to record a solo for Bowie’s song, “Aladdin Sane,” the frontman never gave the pianist notes to play, instead it was a vibe and a mood. It took a couple tries, but they nailed it quickly. 

“I had the ability as a pianist,” Garson says, “to play straight ahead pop or simple rock or more avant garde. It was David who said, ‘You told me you played jazz in the avant garde scene.’ So, he gave me the solo for ‘Aladdin Sane.’ My first choice was a blues riff, my second choice was Latin but on the third, which ended up being what he wanted on the record, I did in one take. I was playing through his head, in a way.”

When Bowie and his band, which included Garson, went on tour, Bowie leaned on his band for personal stability as much as professional acumen. While on the bus, Garson says, Bowie liked to read or watch nuanced, thoughtful films and television (“There were no card games,” Garson says). But at the same time, while he was such a star, Bowie, in the same way, had few people he could trust. As a musician, he was also regimented, especially before a tour, requiring the band to rehearse long hours so that they would be sharp if and when they needed to improvise. Nevertheless, despite a heavy head from wearing the crown of pop music fame, Garson says Bowie was upfront and kind. 

“He was very gracious as a leader,” Garson says. 

Now, as Garson continues his daily work as a musician and his now-maybe-annual job of organizing the tribute to Bowie around his birthday in January, the pianist is appreciative for his decades in song. In a way, music might be the only thing everyone can agree upon, he says. And it’s certainly what bonded he and Bowie, two friends for nearly fifty years. 

“There’s something about sound,” Garson says. “And making that sound into something beautiful like a sculpture that’s there to inspire. When I was a kid, music was fun to play and entertaining. But it’s more than that, especially if you’re a serious musician. You’re changing people’s lives.”

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