Magnificent Obsession | Erroll Garner Tuesdays Week One

Beginning this week, we will be posting a series of articles written by University of Pittsburgh music doctoral students in the seminar titled Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh. They were originally published on the University of Pittsburgh.

They will present short essays examining a single object from the Erroll Garner Jazz Archives located at the University of Pittsburgh. Their posts not only describe the items under consideration, but offer interpretations, questions, and surrounding contexts. This first introductory post is written by Michael Heller, Assistant Professor of Music, Jazz Studies. Enjoy!


In the Paris spring of 1970, piano legend Erroll Garner sat for an interview with drummer Art Taylor. In the course of their conversation, Taylor asked Garner about the expression “who chi coo,” a sort of catchphrase that had become the pianist’s nickname among musicians. Garner defined the saying as follows:

“It means ‘magnificent obsession.’ If I dig what you do, what you’re playing, you’re a magnificent obsession; if I don’t, I say nothing… Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae all know me as Who chi coo, and that means they love me as much as I love them.” (Quoted in Art Taylor, Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews (New York: Da Capo Press, 1993 [1977]), 94.)

It’s an appropriate epithet; Garner was indeed a magnificent obsession for millions of music lovers around the world. From the 1940s to the 1970s, he dazzled audiences with stunning virtuosity and boundless creativity (here’s a quick taste). 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. Garner’s devotees included celebrities like Ringo Starr and Ted Williams, and his 1955 live album Concert By The Sea (recently re-released in a deluxe expanded edition) 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.

Erroll Garner was also a native of Pittsburgh, born in the East Liberty neighborhood on June 15, 1921. He is a key member of the city’s staggering lineage of great pianists, a list that also includes luminaries like Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn, and Ahmad Jamal. For this reason, Pitt was overjoyed to acquire Garner’s personal archive this past summer. Compiled by longtime manager Martha Glaser, this massive cache of material documents Garner’s career starting from the early 1950s, including photos, correspondence, business and legal documents, and several thousand recordings (many unreleased).

To share a taste of this amazing resource, we are proud to announce the launch of Erroll Garner Tuesdays, a weekly blog series to continue throughout the fall. The posts will be written by music doctoral students in a new seminar titled Music, Media, and the Archive: Jazz Collections of Pittsburgh. Beginning next Tuesday, course participants will present short essays examining a single object from the collection. Our authors will be: Ben Barson, a graduate student in jazz studies who explores music as a form of social action; Billy D. Scott, also of jazz studies, a pianist interested in transnational flows of jazz; and Jeff Weston, a composer and music theorist examining identity politics in late 20th century experimentalism. Their posts will not only describe the items under consideration, but offer interpretations, questions, and surrounding contexts. Our journey will culminate in the launch of all new, student-curated exhibit on Garner, which will open in February 2016 at the International Jazz Hall of Fame, inside the William Pitt Student Union.

Our approach in these posts will be deliberately experimental, and differs from how scholars might normally conduct archival work. Generally, researchers would begin by spending an extended period studying a given collection, only beginning to write when they feel they have developed a reasonable grasp of the subject. Our plan is somewhat different, as we will begin writing very early - even as we ourselves are still learning what is present. In doing so, we hope not only to draw out new details about Garner, but also to trace the nature of archival work itself as a gradual, halting, organic process. Especially in the early weeks, the posts may raise more questions than answers, more hypotheses than conclusions. But this, in a sense, is how the archive always functions. As Arlette Farge reminds us: “Archival research starts off slowly and steadily through banal manual tasks to which one rarely gives much thought. Nonetheless, in doing these tasks, a new object is created, a new form of knowledge takes shape, and a new ‘archive’ emerges.” (Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 62.)


To conclude, let’s take a brief look at our first object: a simple photograph from a recording session in the 1950s. No date or photographer is indicated (please contact us, or comment below if you happen to know additional details). Viewed from over the drummer’s shoulder, the camera catches Garner mid-performance in an airy studio criss-crossed with wires and microphones. Beneath him on the piano bench we see a tattered phonebook, a ragged object that cuts a stark contrast to his crisp, cuffed shirt and light cardigan. This was no anomaly; Garner preferred to sit on a phonebook to give him a bit more height when he played. He even brought it on tour (another photo in the collection shows him clutching it while disembarking from an airplane). Incidentally, the phonebook is also preserved in the archive; we may even cover it in a future post. 

Garner’s prowess in the studio was legendary. In the time that other artists might obtain three or four usable takes, he was known to spin off dozens, flawlessly executed and worthy of release. (See, for instance, James M. Doran, Erroll Garner: The Most Happy Piano (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1985), 83-5.) We find him in the middle of such proceedings. His face flashes an expression of simultaneous control and responsiveness, qualities so necessary for improvised music. His gaze is pulled out-of-frame to the right, as he strains to lock eyes with someone else in the room (the bassist? the engineer?) He watches expectantly, waiting to see what might be coming next. 

Who chi coo, Mr. Garner. We’ll see you next Tuesday.

- Michael Heller, Assistant Professor of Music, Jazz Studies