CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Martha Glaser: More than a Manager

For nearly 25 years, she and Erroll Garner were a standard-setting, boundary-breaking family

Erroll Garner and Martha Glaser
Erroll Garner and Martha Glaser (photo courtesy of the Erroll Garner Jazz Project)

In a holiday telegram to his manager Martha Glaser, Erroll Garner asked about “my little princess.” He was referring to Glaser’s niece Susan Rosenberg. “My aunt was very present in my life growing up, as was Erroll,” Rosenberg says. “She was committed to jazz and, more broadly, African-American culture, and through her I learned a lot about the centrality of African-American music in American life. She was also an influence as an independent woman—her struggles as a business person before many women were in business, her struggles as a woman manager and producer and sound engineer. She fought for her client on every level, and I understood that from early on.”

Before Glaser became Garner’s manager in 1953, she had extensive experience in the labor movement and civil rights-oriented politics. Her parents were Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who emigrated to Pittsburgh in the 1910s. There, her father Samuel Farkas was a steelworker; when the family moved to Detroit circa 1930 he took a factory job at Frigidaire. One of Glaser’s several jobs after graduating from Wayne State University in 1942 (she majored in government, with a triple minor in economics, sociology, and history) involved making labor documentaries in worker education. She shifted her focus to entertainment after the June 1943 Detroit race riot—her archive includes photocopies of contemporaneous letters asking Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra to give concerts promoting racial unity. By 1944 she was married to a man surnamed Gleicher and working for the Chicago Human Rights Commission. When the marriage ended, she transliterated to Glaser, the name used in a 1947 DownBeat article focusing on her promotional work for a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Detroit. Within a year, she’d moved to New York, where she found work with, among other employers, artist manager Joe Glaser (no relation).

“Trummy Young, one of the early Jazz at the Philharmonic musicians, told me that Martha taught Norman Granz everything he knew,” says eminent jazz journalist Dan Morgenstern, who wrote liner notes for two of Garner’s original releases on Octave (the record label that the pianist co-founded with Glaser) and received a Grammy for his exhaustive annotations to the 1981 Book of the Month Club reissue of all Garner’s Octave albums. “I think he meant from the standpoint of dealing with musicians, with the music business, which she was extremely good at. She was very detail-oriented, the most hands-on of all the people I got to know who were managing artists. She kept a firm hand on how Erroll was treated backstage and presented onstage, where the drums and bass were, what the piano was. She didn’t take guff from anyone, at a time when not many women were in the position she was. She accomplished near-miracles. He became one of the highest-paid musicians in the business, not just jazz—I think he was making as much money for a concert as Horowitz.”

“One thing you learn coming out of the labor movement is you need to get paid—and she made sure Garner got paid,” historian Robin D.G. Kelley says. “What’s interesting is that she had to navigate the career of someone who looked like he was musically out of step, who emerged out of a 1930s-40s aesthetic. They had a good working relationship. She was willing to criticize him when she had to. But she was also a deep fan of his music, and wasn’t asking for any changes. She basically let him do his thing as long as it was quality. In order for the label to work, they had to cooperate, and Garner cooperated. They worked together as a team for all that time, from 1953 until his death.”

Their simpatico enabled them to undertake the Columbia lawsuit [see “The Radical Legacy of Erroll Garner“]. “It was a joint decision, and a very bold and costly move, like David against Goliath,” Kelley says. “Garner had to commit $40,000, because Columbia demanded it as a kind of collateral as the suit moved up the Appellate Court. The lawsuit kept him from a lot of work for three years; things were hanging in the balance. This is where you really see Martha Glaser’s commitment.”

“I’m sure there was never anything sexual going on between them, but in her own way Martha loved him,” Morgenstern says. Rosenberg cosigns that assessment: “Their relationship was both professional and personal. During his life, she was in communication with all of his family. There’s a huge trove of letters between her and his mother, and with Linton Garner and the Garner family in Pittsburgh. She brought Erroll into our family.

“She was devastated after his death. I think she felt it might have been preventable, that she hadn’t done enough to help him medically. It took her a long time to dig out of that, to be able to take back her job of shepherding his legacy. She thought he was the equivalent to Olivier in acting and Picasso in painting—the greatest artists, in whatever field they were in. She never deviated from that.”

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.