The Erroll Garner Archive at Pitt: Experiments in Studying Jazz in the Archive

Earlier this year, the Erroll Garner Jazz Project gifted the University of Pittsburgh a trove of materials relating to the career of Garner, assembled by his longtime manager Martha Glaser. The collection will be maintained by the University Library System and will live alongside Pitt’s renowned program in Jazz Studies. Michael Heller, professor of jazz studies and historical ethnomusicology, is teaching a course this semester called “Music, Media and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh,” for which students will work hands-on with the Garner archive and present their findings in a variety of forums, including the Pitt Archives blog. I spoke to Prof. Heller over Skype about the course, the Garner archive, and the productive connections between critical archival studies, jazz studies, and ethnomusicology.

Michael Heller: There are two different pre-histories of the project and the class. One has to do with my background and interests, and the other has to do with the collection and Pitt's acquisition of it. I’ve been very closely engaged in my work with a movement that's sometimes referred to as “critical archival studies” or “the archival turn,” which emerges most closely out of critical theory, history, and cultural studies departments. The core of the movement is the idea that archives aren’t just neutral spaces for the gathering of data, that archives are both structured within certain types of power systems and they themselves structure discourses in ways that it’s important to try to unpack and understand. Part of this movement, too, have been a few people who have tried to construct what are sometimes referred to as “ethnographies of the archive,” and they’ve done that in different ways. Sometimes it’s a matter of talking about the goals of the archivists as they put particular archives together and how that structured what was there. And sometimes it has to do more with the relationship of the researcher with the materials and how that influences the way writing is done. And so a big part of my work over the last several years has been with these kinds of issues. The book that I have under contract is dealing with all of this stuff in relation to private archives held by loft jazz musicians. Connected with all of this, I was involved last year [at UMass Boston] with a colleague at Harvard in founding an archive studies group that reached across several universities and disciplines.

Parallel to all of this, there had been negotiations for a number of years with the people at the Erroll Garner Jazz Project. It’s run by a woman named Susan Rosenberg, who is the niece of Martha Glaser. When Garner died, there were some things left to the family, but there was a huge cache of material that he left to Glaser. And so Pitt has been in touch with them for several years, primarily because of Garner’s connection to [the city of] Pittsburgh, being born and raised in Pittsburgh and a part of this Pittsburgh piano tradition that’s really sort of jaw-dropping. With the Garner Project, one of the things that’s amazing about what they did is that they had hired their own archivist [Jocelyn Arem] and had really done a lot of the collection processing beforehand. So when Pitt finalized the deal to acquire the collection over the summer, it came in pretty good shape; there were already databases and finding aids. So then I get this job [at Pitt] and I hear about the collection, and, as with any library collection, they really want people to use it. I already had in mind doing a class that would combine some of this critical [archival studies] reading with some hands-on work in an archive, so it was just this perfect marriage. So that’s how the class ended up coming about, and we’re really dividing our time 50-50, doing these readings about how to approach archives and then doing work in the archives themselves.

Dean Reynolds: In your first blog entry, you note that your approach to excavating the archive will be “experimental.” How do you conceptualize that “experimental” approach?

MH: I have some inspirations that are the background for this. One is Brent Edwards at Columbia, who was a committee member for my dissertation. He’s taught a seminar several times called “Black Radicalism and the Archive,” where they worked with several archives that had come to Columbia. The other inspirations were a couple of classes at Harvard—one taught by Alex Rehding and the other taught by Anne Shreffler—where the goal of the class—like our goal—was to put up an exhibit at the end of the semester instead of having the students write term papers. So, I’m not coming up with all of this myself. In terms of the process, I think that, well, I would frame it like this: Part of the thrust of a lot of the critical archive studies literature is this idea that it’s impossible to know an archive; the archives are never complete, but also, as a researcher in an enormous archive, you’re only ever going to see certain fragments of it. And as a result of that, the way that archives were traditionally used is somewhat problematic, because in more positivist traditions of writing, there’s this idea that you go in, you get a grasp of it, and then you write as sort of this “authority” on the archive. The more recent literature has started to engage with this idea that it’s never that simple. You’re always going in—and this could be a nice ethnomusicological connection—as a subject that has a position. Being more reflexive about the process of being with the archive, reading through the archive, and figuring out these sticky, fascinating temporalities between present, past, and future has to be part of the story. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted the students to start writing really early. At this point we’ve only been working with the materials for two-and-a-half weeks, a couple hours a week. So it’s not as if we know what’s there. People keep asking me, “Oh, what are some of the things you’ve found?” and I keep wanting to say “Ask me in sixth months! I’ll know some more things!” [laughs]. But rather than try to hide behind that or take that as a shortcoming, I want to see what it’s like to start writing early and start writing about things when maybe we don’t know what they are, and to have the wherewithal and—courage is too strong a word—the self-awareness about that process of not knowing.

DR: I think “courage” is the right word. I mean, you have to be unafraid to be wrong about something, or not to be wrong necessarily, but to approach something with a sense of “we’re not really sure where this came from, what this is.”

MH: Exactly. It sounds a little too self-important for me to phrase it that way, but it’s something like courage anyway.

DR: You’re working towards a bigger exhibit of some of this material, so what role will the [prospective] audience play? With so much material, you have to come with some kinds of assumptions about “what kinds of things am I looking for?” Do you have a particular audience in mind that you expect to take an interest in this material?

MH: It’s going to be for the general public. The exhibit is going up in the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame, which is inside of the Pitt Student Union. So we’re assuming from the outset that the audience will know nothing about Garner. But we’re also going to be aiming to determine some kind of analytical perspective. The exhibit isn’t going to be something like “Erroll Garner: Genius of the Piano.” That’s not really what we’re going for. I know that one thing that several of the students are interested in and the Garner Project people are interested in is thinking about the political resonances of Garner’s career. Actually, the first time I talked to Susan and Jocelyn from the Garner Project, that was one of the first things they said, that they’re really interested in presenting the materials as evidence of Garner’s position in the black community and role within a larger black arts tradition and [the struggle for] recognition of rights for black artists. And that was interesting to me because Garner is not the first person I think of when I think of that stream of jazz, especially coming out of my loft work. But through this archive there are these threads that come out. One of them is Glaser and the way that she protected Garner’s rights through legal contracts, because Glaser herself was a fierce negotiator and had a background in Civil Rights advocacy. So we’ve already found that, for instance, the standard contract that they would send to performance venues had an anti-Jim Crow clause, where they had to have integrated audiences. She was constantly fighting regarding the rights of black artists, proper remuneration, these sorts of things. So it’s possible to read through this archive as an illustration that even a mainstream black artist had to navigate these issues and sometimes had to work behind the scenes to get the recognition he deserved.

DR: You’ve said you don’t really know what’s in there yet, but are there other threads that you’re going to follow along based on the material?

MH: One of the things that I think is going to be fascinating long-term for scholars is dealing with the recordings in the archive, which we’re only going to be touching on because they’re still working out some access issues. I believe in Glaser’s contracts they insisted that they take copies of entire session reels. So there are thousands of recordings, from which we’re hoping it may be possible—and from what we’ve talked about with Jocelyn it might be—to really listen to Garner’s approach in the studio, how he interacted with fellow musicians and his voice as a leader. That’s one thread that we’re interested in. Tracing his tours throughout the world and his global impact is going to be really interesting. Tracing the afterlives of some of his most famous outputs. “Misty,” for instance, has several folders of material relating to not only the composition itself but also licensing agreements to use it in various films. The post going up next week is actually about the film Play Misty for Me. [The album] Concert by the Sea is another important thread, which is strangely not acknowledged enough today, even though for years it held the title as best-selling jazz record of all time.

DR: You mentioned that fabulous tradition of piano playing but also of jazz in general in Pittsburgh. Do you sense that work with the archive can help create an even stronger awareness about Pittsburgh’s central role in jazz? I’m also thinking of [Carol Bash’s] new Mary Lou Williams documentary. I wonder if there’s going to be an increasing visibility in more mainstream circles of Pittsburgh’s role in jazz and if you see this archive as really helping to contribute to that.

MH: Well, that’s absolutely a goal. And that’s a goal that’s closely tied into the growth of the jazz program at Pitt. Pitt has one of the oldest Jazz Studies programs in the country. Nathan Davis was the real core of it; he was hired by the University in 1969. In 1971 he started the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, which is an annual series of talks and concerts by musicians. And there’s also a fabulous archive of jazz at Pitt that just was processed last year and is now available to researchers. Dr. Davis was always very interested in [the Erroll Garner archive]. He retired several years ago, and they hired Geri Allen to replace him, and she is working on getting the program revamped, and now this year they’ve hired me and AJ Johnson. So there’s this big expansion, and Pittsburgh’s jazz tradition is something that we’re looking at very closely. Dr. Davis did a lot of work on this topic with several students coming out of the program, who have written studies of Pittsburgh jazz of various kinds. This year’s Jazz Seminar is going to focus on some of the piano tradition, including a screening of Bash’s documentary and a Q&A with the director. And having Allen as one of the preeminent performers of Mary Lou Williams’s work is also an extension of that. So the archive is now part of that too.

See the latest posts on the Pitt Archives blog using #Erroll Garner Tuesdays.

This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.


Michael C. Heller is a musicologist and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on jazz, sound studies, and archival theory. His current book project, The Loft Scene: Improvising New York in the 1970s (under contract, University of California Press), examines issues of musician agency on the levels of performance, economics, and archival practices.

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