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Erroll Garner: Four Thematic Snapshots

One hundred years ago, on June 15, 1921, Erroll Garner was born in his family home on St. Clair Street in Pittsburgh, PA. The youngest of six children (along with his twin brother Ernest), within a few years it was clear that Garner was endowed with extraordinary musical abilities. By age ten he was making his first professional appearances, playing on the radio with a band called the Kan-D-Kids. As a teenager he performed widely around the Pittsburgh region, in demand with numerous professional bands. And by his early 20s, he would head out to find his fortunes in the clubs and concert halls of New York, Los Angeles, and around the world. Garner would ultimately emerge as the world’s preeminent pianist by the 1950s, traveling the globe for over two decades. He won countless awards, appeared regularly on television, met dignitaries and celebrities, and recorded some of the most loved and best-selling records in the history of American music (including his 1955 masterpiece Concert By The Sea). Staggeringly virtuosic, endlessly creative (his piano introductions alone are masterpieces), by any measure Erroll Garner is among the most powerful and influential artists of the 20th century.


Despite Garner’s immense stature during his lifetime, he remains among the most understudied figures in jazz history. While many of his contemporaries have been graced with detailed biographies and scholarly studies, only in recent years have scholars begun to grapple with Garner’s enormous significance. A great deal of this activity has come in response to the work of the Garner-Glaser Foundation and opening of the Erroll Garner Archive at the University of Pittsburgh, which opened to the public in 2015. Since that time, Garner has released over a dozen new and reissued albums, received a Grammy nomination (for The Complete Concert By The Sea), and has been the subject of Masters and Ph.D theses, a newly updated discography, and the wonderful podcast Erroll Garner Uncovered. Despite all of this activity, jazz devotees have still only begun to scratch the surface of this remarkable figure.


This digital exhibit, curated by graduate students and faculty of the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Studies program, is the result of four months of close engagement with materials from the Garner Archive. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this engagement took place entirely online, making use of digital scans made available through the University of Pittsburgh Library System. Much of the current digital collection consists of correspondence to and from Garner and his manager Martha Glaser (a powerful presence in the archive, who will also be featured in the pages that follow). Working with these materials, the curators were given a unique lens not only into Garner’s musical feats, but also his stances on social issues of the time, his relationships with both musical and non-musical peers, and the complex business operations that underlie the career of a musical icon.


This exhibit is not intended to be exhaustive, but offers a small window into the depths of the Garner collection. The pages provide—as the title suggests—a series of snapshots. We have divided them into four categories: Garner’s and Glaser’s efforts to fight racism; the complexities of tourism and publicity; his reputation among his musical peers; and his legacy after his passing in 1977. Click on the menu on the right to access any of these four pages. If any of the images featured are of particular interest, they can be clicked through for additional information, as well as links to their page within the Archive’s digital collection.


We hope you enjoy this journey into the world of a musical luminary.