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Norman Granz: The Jazz Advocate

Norman Granz, the founder of Jazz At The Philharmonic and Verve Records, circa November 1947.

If you study the history of jazz, you’ll see one name pop up again and again of a man who never played or sang a note: that’s Norman Granz. Granz was a concert promoter, manager, record producer, and civil rights activist, becoming one of the most important advocates for jazz in the 1940s and 50s. Granz recorded or promoted some of the biggest jazz luminaries, including Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Tatum. However, on this program, I’ll focus mostly on the singers he worked with, including Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

[Originally aired August 3, 2018 for Norman Granz's centennial]

Jam Sessions in Los Angeles

Norman Granz was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Los Angeles on August 6, 1918. For someone who became so tied to the world of music, there’s little in Granz’s childhood that has any connection to music whatsoever. He didn’t listen to records, nor did he show an affinity for performing. He was a charismatic kid and a jock, who showed more of an interest in business and progressive causes.

Granz himself said that his first 21 years were just a preamble to the moment he first heard tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’ recording of “Body And Soul,” a moment that opened up his eyes and ears to the world of jazz.

After briefly attending UCLA and joining the Army during World War II, Granz began to become a fixture in the jazz scene in Los Angeles, a lone white face among the sea of African Americans. He soon befriended Nat King Cole, who was just beginning to make a name for himself out in L.A. Cole helped Granz enter the backstage life in jazz, introducing him to Lester Young, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, and a whole host of other jazz stars as they toured the West Coast.

These connections led him to organize his first jazz jam session concert in June 1942, when he was only 23 years old. Granz became appalled at the audience segregation in L.A. nightclubs, so he made a deal with the owner of a local club called Trouville: let musicians play a three-hour jam session on your day off, pay them a decent wage, let anyone (black or white) into the door, and you can take all the proceeds. It wasn’t a money-making venture for Granz, but rather an experiment in racial integration and great jazz. Nat King Cole and Lester Young performed, and the owner of the Trouville made a killing. Granz’s experiment was a success.

Jazz At The Philharmonic

Soon, these jam sessions took off and spread to other L.A. music venues — provided they integrated their audiences and paid the musicians fairly. People like Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles, Dexter Gordon, and even blues guitarist T-Bone Walker dropped in whenever they visited L.A. Cole served as the house pianist, but strangely he was never asked to sing. At this time, Granz didn’t really like singers in his jam sessions, and even ignored Ella Fitzgerald when she performed in L.A.

Then in 1944, Norman Granz saw an opportunity. Racial tensions in the city had grown, leading to the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 and the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial, where seventeen Mexican American youths were sent to jail. Granz, always a fighter of bigotry and racism, decided to organize a massive jazz concert to raise money for the defendants. He set his sights on the Los Angeles Philharmonic concert hall, and on July 2, 1944, “Jazz At The Philharmonic” was born.

Over two thousand people attended. The concert featured Nat Cole (of course), trombonist J.J. Johnson, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, and in a last minute sub (believe it or not), guitarist Les Paul. The concert was recorded to be broadcast later on Armed Forces Radio.

Granz continued organizing Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts throughout 1944. One of the brilliant decisions he made was to record the concerts. At this point, live concerts were meant to be seen in person. Granz, however, thought there could be a market for a live jazz jam session for those in middle America who couldn’t make it to L.A. to catch the real thing. And he was right. Jazz At The Philharmonic, Vol. 1 sold very well for label owner Moe Asch, and later for Mercury records into the 1950s.

Soon, he brought along Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker along to perform in the series, making bebop part of the JATP proceedings.

He also brought singer Billie Holiday, who was a feature of the earlier jam session in Trouville. Billie would be a staple of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and their only featured singer, for the next three years.

JATP On Tour

At this point Jazz At The Philharmonic had outgrown its roots at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so in 1945, Granz decided to take his show on the road to other concert halls. Over the next 14 years, Jazz At The Philharmonic embarked on 17 national tours and 8 European tours. Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins, two of the greatest living saxophonists became attractions as Jazz At The Philharmonic toured the country.

Holiday also continued to tour with them, at least until May of 1947. On May 16, Holiday was in Philadelphia when the police found heroin in her hotel room. She and her driver escaped in a getaway car (supposedly amid gunfire), and travelled back to New York where she was arrested and awaited trial for about a week. In the interim, she performed. During the intermission of a nightclub performance on May 24, Norman Granz arranged for a car to bring Holiday to Carnegie Hall where she performed a 10-minute set with pianist Bobby Tucker as part of the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert series. Three days later, Holiday was in court, and sentenced to a year in jail.

Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson

In 1947, Norman Granz stepped into another aspect of the music business: owning a record label. He founded Clef Records that June, with the hopes of publishing new Jazz At the Philharmonic concerts (he fought with other labels over the ownership of the old concert masters for years).

That same year in September, he attended a concert with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall, a concert that historians say ushered in the era of bebop into the mainstream. Performing at that concert was singer Ella Fitzgerald, who over the last few years had been and honing her craft as a bebop singer. While Granz was quick to dismiss Fitzgerald’s singing in the early 1940s, now she couldn’t be ignored. He recognized how jazz-forward her singing was as well as her appeal as a performer. So the biggest jazz concert promoter in America worked to get the biggest jazz singer in American on board.

She was introduced to JATP in September 1949. On that same concert, Norman Granz also introduced pianist Oscar Peterson to the world after discovering him in a Toronto night club earlier that year. Peterson would soon take over as Granz’s go-to pianist, taking over the position once held by Nat King Cole early in the 1940s (for what it’s worth, Peterson’s piano style and even his rarely heard vocal style was quite similar to Cole’s, so it made sense).

The Astaire Story

Norman Granz spent most of the late 1940s and early 1950s continuing to organize, promote, and record live jazz performances, but he did initiate in a two ambitious recording projects in the studio for his Clef Record label. One was called The Jazz Scene, a box set of recordings of musicians like Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and more. The other was The Astaire Story, a box set of new recordings featuring singer, dancer, and all-around entertainer Fred Astaire.

The Astaire Story was more than just a group of songs, but rather a retrospective on Astaire’s entire singing career. It’s one of the most remarkable albums from the early 1950s, and one of the pioneering examples of the creativity that could be accomplished through the fairly new medium of the long-playing record. Astaire’s intimate vocals and charming personality, along with deft accompaniment by Oscar Peterson also laid out the sonic blueprint for what made a Norman Granz-produced record: laidback, understated, and cool.

Ella And The Songbooks

Norman Granz once remarked that he felt most at home in the studio. After creating the Clef record label, he went on to create a new label called Norgran in the early 1950s, and yet another one in the late 1950s called Verve Records. All of these labels were dedicated to highlighting many of the players that he worked with during the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert years. He recorded albums of Oscar Peterson performing the songbooks of different composers, along with several volumes of recordings by Art Tatum, plus many of the final sessions for both Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday before they passed away. The number of seminal recordings in the 1950s that have Norman Granz’s name attached are almost too numerous to mention. It’s really a who’s-who of jazz talent.

Perhaps his finest achievement in the world of recording was his creation of the the songbook albums of Ella Fitzgerald. Granz had taken over as Fitzgerald's manager in 1953, taking over her finances and directing her career trajectory. His idea was to make her the centerpiece of a project that would document some of the best songs from the first half of the 20th century, codifying what would later be dubbed the “Great American Songbook.” He had her perform the catalogs of composers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and others, collecting them each into a songbook box set.

Granz even created the Verve record label expressly for the reason of having Fitzgerald record these songbooks. In the 50s and 60s Verve Records went on to become the premiere jazz record label and the home for artists like Billie Holiday, Mel Torme, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Wes Montgomery, and more.

Granz’s songbook experiment began in 1956 with the Cole Porter songbook, and continued for seven more albums with over 250 songs recorded. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that once Ella Fitzgerald had recorded her songbooks, quote, “songs that had been pigeonholed as show tunes or jazz novelties or faded relics of Tin Pan Alley had become American classical music, the property and pride of everyone."

First Retirement

Between 1956 and 1960, Verve continued to record some of the highest profile jazz artists with Norman Granz as head producer, including Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Mel Torme, Woody Herman, Gerry Mulligan, and more. Granz also produced a series of duet sessions between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, choosing the songs for them to perform.

However, within five years of creating Verve, Granz grew tired of the recording industry. A few things were at play here. The first had to do with the political climate of the time. Granz had always been a staunch advocate for racial equality, and like many progressives at the time, he had flirted with the Communist party in America. It’s a bit absurd to think that a capitalist business owner like Granz would ever be accused of being a communist, but he was questioned by the FBI and even ran into trouble renewing his passport because of his supposed communist ties. His career wasn’t affected by the incident, but certainly it had some bearing on Granz’s decision to move permanently to Switzerland in 1959.

Now living abroad, Granz sold Verve to MGM in 1960, spending his time working on his first love as a concert promoter. Frank Sinatra, recognizing Verve’s value, showed an interest in buying the label. But Granz never cared for Sinatra the businessman or performer, so he sold it to MGM before Sinatra could make a counteroffer.

He continued to work as Fitzgerald's manager in his retirement, and also served as Duke Ellington's manager. During this period in the 1960s, he helped make Ella Fitzgerald a marquee name in jazz worldwide in the 1950s and 60s. He continued to serve in this role until the end of her career in the late 1980s, and also continued to promote the Jazz At The Philharmonic mostly abroad for several more decades.

While his relationship with Ella Fitzgerald was mostly fine, his relationship with Ellington was more strained. They fought over which material Ellington’s band would perform on tour, and they dramatically parted ways in 1966 after a Granz-organized concert that featured both Ellington and Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald's sister had just died, and in mourning, she was reluctant to perform. Granz insisted that she did perform, but Duke Ellington tried to protect her by allowing her to leave the stage. Granz and Ellington clashed over this event.

During his semi-retirement in Europe, Granz also forged connections with European artists and personalities like Yves Montand, Marlene Dietrich, and Pablo Picasso. He collected and even dealt many of Picasso’s paintings, and the two would become close friends.

Pablo Records

In the early 1970s, Norman Granz made yet another entrance into the recording industry. He noticed that many of the marquee jazz performers of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Pass, and Oscar Peterson, were being given short shrift by other record labels and asked to perform music that Granz felt was beneath their caliber. To remedy this, he created a new label that would serve as a showcase for the best jazz musicians in the twilight of their careers. He called it Pablo Records, named after his friend Pablo Picasso. Granz ran the label for 15 years, featuring the music of Count Basie, Milt Jackson, Dizzy Gillespie, and more, before selling it to Fantasy Records in 1987.

At this point, Granz retired completely from the music industry. He lived out the rest of his years in Geneva, and passed away on November 22, 2001. While the extent of his legacy may only be appreciated by the most avid jazz fans out there, his impact can be heard in most of the jazz performed and recorded in the second half of the 20th century.

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