How Jazz Pianist Erroll Garner Fought for His Rights

Gilles Petard/Redferns

Erroll Garner is not a household name, but when the jazz pianist was in his prime between the 1940s and 60s, anyone who listened to popular music knew him. On the Johnny Carson show, on the radio, Garner was one of those rare jazz players who managed to be innovative and popular, which is why he was both a big earner for Columbia Records, and one of the few true jazz artists to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For Variety, Dan Ouellette writes about something else that made Garner famous: the successful lawsuit he filed against his record label, Columbia Records, for breaking his contract. Record labels ripped off many Black musicians, particularly jazz musicians, and Garner’s successful suit made him, as the article’s title puts it, “the first artist to sue a major label and win.” It started when Garner’s manager, Martha Glaser, was able to get Columbia to include a clause in his contract, which let Garner approve or reject any new music released under his name. This was highly unusual. When Columbia breached Garner’s contract, he sued, not just for himself, but, as he said, for “the rights of my fellow members of the record and music industry.” The money his suit generated allowed he and Glaser to start their own record label, and eventually set a precedent that musicians could own the rights to their own material. It being America, racism played a significant role in how his lawsuit and his success was framed in the mainstream media.

Kelley points out another factor in the dispute, which started in 1958, when the Saturday Evening Post wrote a negative portrayal of Garner, a self-taught master improviser who couldn’t read music. “They portrayed him as a happy, naïve guy,” Kelley says. “They said he was out of touch with reality. When asked about Bach, the writer said Erroll thought it was some kind of beer. They said he was illiterate and set Garner up as someone who had nothing to do with money and didn’t care. The mainstream press saw him as an idiot savant.” In contrast, Kelley says that the black press, where his battle was a headline story, heralded him as a sober, articulate, intelligent David-who-beat-Goliath. I feel this can be seen as a civil rights case as well as a precedent for artists.”

When Garner won his landmark case of making a groundbreaking statement on an artist’s freedom, he received a cash settlement, his masters were returned and Columbia agreed to recall and destroy the records it had released without his approval, although many of those albums ended up for sale on the black market (it’s possible that distributors, rather than Columbia, were responsible for illegally selling the albums).

The money funded the launching of Garner’s own independent label with Glaser. With Glaser producing, Garner recorded 12 albums in 18 years for Octave Records. Those albums were distributed by different companies through the course of the label’s existence.

“That was also a remarkable feat,” says Peter Lockhart Senior Producer of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project and a vice president of Octave Music. “As far as we know, that was the birth of an artist doing his own licensing deal.”

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