Pittsburgh-born pianist Erroll Garner (1921-1977) was among the most staggeringly creative artists that jazz has ever known. From the 1940s to the 1970s, he dazzled audiences with stunning virtuosity and boundless inventiveness. Garner was renowned for his ability to improvise nuanced introductions to familiar songs, for the exhilarating interplay between the left and right hands, for his remarkable sense of melody and pacing. His devotees included celebrities like Ringo Starr and Ted Williams, and his 1955 live album Concert By The Sea remains among the best-selling jazz albums of all time. By any measure, Garner was one of jazz’s brightest stars, and one of the most remarkable prodigies of the 20th century.
But behind the scenes, a second individual was powerfully influential in Garner’s rise to stardom: his longtime agent and manager Martha Glaser (1921-2014). From the early 1950s until the pianist’s death in 1977, Glaser fought tooth and nail for her client. Drawing from her background in civil rights activism, she consistently negotiated to ensure that the pianist and his collaborators always received first class treatment and fair payment, and she firmly insisted that the group would never play for segregated audiences. Together, the duo worked to lobby strongly for the rights of African American artists at a time when jazz musicians were regularly exploited by many branches of the entertainment industry.
What is involved in a career spent managing one musician? With Pitt’s 2015 acquisition of Garner’s professional and private papers, the jazz community has been provided a rare opportunity to peer into the intimacies of this professional relationship. This exhibit examines Glaser’s relationship with her only client through rare materials curated from the collection. The outer cases explore the duo’s multifaceted partnership by examining four roles that Glaser played in the pianist’s life: Adviser, Advocate, Encourager, and Enforcer. A center case invites more open exploration of memorabilia from the pianist’s expansive career. Private letters, personal photographs, and objects on display for the first-time illuminate the at-times tumultuous, often humorous, but always team-oriented relationship between Glaser and Garner.
This exhibition is made possible through the enduring support and diligent work of: Susan Rosenberg, Jocelyn Arem, Edward A. Galloway, David Grinnell, Miriam Meislik, Geri Allen, Benjamin Barson, Julie Seavy, and the staffs of the University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System, Archives Service Center, and Department of Music.
Curated by: Jeff Weston, Billy D. Williams, Miriam Meislik, and Michael Heller.