In 1926, at the age of eight, Gara Garayev first entered the junior music school at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire, currently known as the Baku Music Academy. Due to his musical talents, in 1933 Garayev was allowed to enroll simultaneously in two faculties at the conservatoire. Among his teachers were Georgi Sharoyev, Leonid Rudolf, and the prominent Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov. In 1937, Garayev joined the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR.
In 1938, at the age of twenty, Garayev composed his first musical piece, a cantata "The Song of the Heart" to the poem by Rasul Rza. Garayev conducted his cantata during its premiere the "Decade of Azerbaijani Art" festival in the Bolshoi Theater, an event also attended by Joseph Stalin. In the same year, Garayev moved to Moscow State Conservatoire, where he became a student and a good friend of Dmitri Shostakovich.
In 1945, Garayev and Jovdat Hajiyev wrote the "Motherland" ("Vətən") opera, for which they were awarded a prestigious Stalin prize. In 1948, at the age of 30, Garayev was again awarded this prize for his symphonic poem "Leyli and Majnun", based on the same-titled famous work of Nizami.
In 1952, under the direction of the choreograph P. A. Gusev, Garayev's "Seven Beauties" ("Yeddi Gözəl") ballet was staged at the Azerbaijani Theater of Opera and Ballet. Based based on Nizami's famous poem, "Seven Beauties" became the first Azerbaijani ballet and opened a new chapter in the history of classical music of Azerbaijan. Garayev's only other ballet, "Path of Thunder" ("İldırımlı yollarla"), staged in 1958, was dedicated to racial conflicts in South Africa .
In the same year, Garayev also wrote the soundtrack for the documentary film "A Story About the Oil Workers of the Caspian Sea", directed by Roman Karmen and set at the Oil Rocks, world's first off-shore drilling town built in 1949 on rigs in the Caspian Sea.
Upon the death of Uzeyir Hajibeyov in 1948, Garayev became the Chair of the Union of Composers of Azerbaijan SSR and the rector of Azerbaijan State Conservatoire. In the latter position, Garayev retained Hajibeyov's traditional emphasis on Azerbaijani folk music in teaching, and also promoted the contemporary genres, such as jazz, in Azerbaijani music.
During his teaching career at the Azerbaijan State Conservatoire, Garayev prepared a number of prominent Azerbaijani musicians and composers, including Niyazi, Arif Malikov, Khayyam Mirzazade and Ismayil Hajibeyov among others. Garayev's own son, Faraj (born 1943) was also his student, who went on to compose single-act ballets such as "Shadows of Qobustan" ("Qobustanın kölgələri") and "Kaleidoscope", and later led the musical avantgarde movement in Azerbaijan.
In June 1961, amidst the Cold War, Garayev and Tikhon Khrennikov were the only two Soviet composers who attended the First International Los Angeles Music Festival held at UCLA. Fifteen composers from seven nations presented their works, including Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. On June 11, Franz Waxman conducted the Festival Symphony Orchestra with a suite from Garayev's ballet "Path of Thunder".
Garayev suffered from heart disease, which prevented him from attending his own 60th jubilee celebration held in Moscow, where he was awarded the title of the Hero of Socialist Labor, a highest recognition award of the Soviet government. Garayev spent the last 5 years of his life in Moscow, away from public, although his love for Baku remained strong and was reflected in his writing:
To me, Baku is the most beautiful city in the world. Every morning, when the city wakes whether it be to the sun or the rain and fog, every morning my city sings. Baku is meant for art. It gives me so much pleasure to write about this city no matter if you write music, verse or paint images.
Garayev has a great and brilliant talent which is highly developed. He is extremely knowledgeable about instrumentation, polyphony and the other components that make up music. He surely has a great future.
I've been one who has been privileged in being able to reveal the private and mysterious ideas of Gara Garayev to the audience. So I know the excitement the audience feels while listening to Garayev's music. It can't be characterized as either entertainment or relaxation. Rather, it exposes all the fire in one's heart and compels one to act. I'm grateful that I've had the chance to be in touch with his music and to be the first one to interpret most of his works.
I must say that I indeed have been fortunate, not only because I had the chance to meet such a talented musical personality but because I got to know him through his music. This is the only way to get deep inside an artist-through music. Everything trivial and insignificant - the things one pays attention to during mundane, everyday meetings - disappears. Only the essence of a man is left.
Garayev has that rare ability to stay true to himself and not to imitate anyone. He maintains his own individuality even while changing with the times, regardless of genre.
There was almost no limit to Garayev's scope of knowledge in all genres of music. In 1963, we traveled together to America. It amazed me how Garayev knew so many things about so many different genres of music. For example, I'd have to admit to being a bit elitist when it comes to jazz. But I couldn't hide my admiration when he demonstrated competency in this field as well. He mentioned several names, compared one tendency in jazz to another and talked about things I had never heard of.
Garayev's music is one of the greatest columns in the museum of Azerbaijani music. His role in making Azerbaijan's music known worldwide is immense.
As a rule, Garayev would turn his lessons into a discussion of problems in contemporary music - analysis of techniques, language and styles of music. Garayev hated thoughtless attitudes toward folk music. He made his students learn the inner workings of folk music.
It seems like all civilization is in Garayev's hands, not as simple encyclopedic data but in a profound way. He was an indisputable authority in music circles in the USSR.
He was very strict with his students. He had an encyclopedic knowledge about almost everything related to problems of life as well as problems of art regardless of whether it was in the field of science, music or literature. He was acquainted with so many intelligent people. You gain so much confidence through belief in your teacher when he is a great Master. We never dared to think of skipping class or of not coming prepared. Our classes were one-on-one with him, but we didn't leave when they were over. We would stay on and listen to what went on with the next student. That's why there were always so many people in Garayev's classes all the time despite how hard it was to enroll with him.