Producer, record label founder
A jazz impresario whose social conscience was instrumental in earning African American musicians fair pay and treatment, Norman Granz was a producer, record label owner, and the manager of several top names in jazz. His associations with such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Coleman Hawkins is the stuff of jazz legend. Washington Post writer Richard Harrington quoted trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who said that working with Granz was “the original first-class treatment for jazz musicians.” Oscar Peterson, who called Granz “Mr. Jazz,” according to the the Jazz Professional website, named one of his sons Norman in Granz’s honor. Granz, whose record labels included Clef, Norgran, Verve, and Pablo, was also the founder of the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) jam sessions that toured the United States in the 1940s and 1950s.
Granz was born on August 6, 1918, in South Central Los Angeles to Ukrainian-Jewish parents. When he was a boy, his family moved to Long Beach to be near the department store his father owned. After it closed during the Great Depression, the Granz family moved again, this time to the city’s Boyle Heights section. Granz’s fascination with jazz began in his teens when he became friends with Lee Young, a drummer, whose brother Lester Young was renowned as an innovator on the tenor saxophone. Through Lee, Granz was able to sit in on the tenor titan’s jam sessions, and in 1944 featured him in an acclaimed short film, Jammin’ the Blues. Granz would produced many of Young’s albums until the musician’s death in 1959.
During World War II, Granz served first in the Army Air Corps and then trained troops for the Army Special Services. After returning to study philosophy at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), he paid his tuition by taking a job at a brokerage house. While at UCLA he organized and promoted Sunday night jazz concerts at the Trouville Club in the city’s Beverly-Fairfax area. With the Trouville’s owner, Granz insisted on two conditions that remained his hallmarks as a professional promoter: The first was that the audience must treat the concerts as if they were of classical music; they accomplished this by crowding the dance floor with tables so the audience would listen, not dance. The second was that the club’s audience had to be integrated every night of the week, not only on the dates of Granz’s bookings. Both innovations marked a dramatic—indeed revolutionary—departure from Swing- era jazz culture. “I insisted that my musicians were to be treated with the same respect as Leonard Bernstein or [Jascha] Heifetz because they were just as good, both as men and musicians,” Granz said, in a quotation included in his obituary in the Jerusalem Post.
During and after his studies, Granz held a variety of jobs, eventually becoming a film editor at MGM Studios. In 1944, while Granz was working there, he hit upon the idea of pairing top jazz players with lesser-known performers for jam sessions and “duels” between musicians of different styles. This format, which premiered in July of that year, debuted at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium; the name he chose for the evenings—which would outlive his use of the venue by over a decade—was Jazz at the Philharmonic.
The concept was a huge success. Audiences were delighted to see their favorite jazz artists appear in ever-changing combinations. Among those who participated in the JATP series were singers Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan; trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge; alto saxophone greats Charlie Parker and Benny Carter; tenor saxophone players Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, and Stan Getz; pianists Nat Cole (who later became famous as a singer), Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, the latter two famous for their jazz orchestras. The initial Los Angeles season was such a hit that JATP soon booked dates in New York. In 1951 Granz took JATP on the road—where it stayed until 1957, two years before he went into semiretirement in Switzerland. “That was always a ball,” recalled tenor saxophonist Ben Webster of his first JATP tour (1953-54), in a tribute to Granz quoted on the Jazz Professional website. “Norman Granz has a great understanding of musicians.”
For the Record…
Born on August 6, 1918, in Los Angeles, CA; died on November 22, 2001, in Geneva, Switzerland. Education : Studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), early 1940s.
While a student at UCLA, organized jazz concerts at Trouville Club in Los Angeles, where he insisted that mixed-race audiences be allowed, early 1940s; created Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert series at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, 1944; produced film short Jammin’ the Blues, featuring Lester Young, 1944; JATP toured across the U.S., playing to integrated audiences for the first time in some cities, mid-1940s-1957; founded Clef, Norgran, Verve, and Pablo record labels, 1946-73; sold Verve to MGM, 1960, and Pablo to Fantasy Records, 1987; moved to Switzerland, 1959; continued to produce JATP European tours and manage careers of clients Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Duke Ellington.
Awards: National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award (refused), 1994; Jazz at the Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award (accepted by Oscar Peterson), 1999.
Granz was equally known as a successful businessman—and he made no bones about it. His obituary in the Jerusalem Post quoted his 1953 boast, made at the height of JATP’s success, in which he said, “If I didn’t make at least $100,000 a year take-home pay, I’d quit.” The revue was profitable for his musicians as well: Ella Fitzgerald earned $50,000 a year from her JATP tour alone.
Despite financial success, Granz’s selfless advocacy for equal rights and equal pay for his African American musicians was radical for its time and earned him lasting praise. He insisted, for example, that his artists, white or black, all stay in the same hotels and eliminated segregated venues from the JATP tours. This adherence to principal cost him money, and he claimed in Down Beat in 1947 that he lost $100,000 a year in revenue from canceling club dates where integrated audiences were not welcome. His insistence broke new social ground in segregated parts of the United States, however. JATP played at the first mixed-race dances and concerts ever in Kansas City and Charleston, South Carolina.
Of Granz’s social conscience, Tad Hershorn of Rutgers University’s Jazz Studies Institute, quoted on the CNN website said, “He held the U.S. accountable for the notion of freedom, and he did this years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Time and time again, Norman stated that his three goals were to promote integration, present good jazz and to show that good money could be made from promoting good jazz. He succeeded in all three.” Bass player Ray Brown remembered in Granz’s obituary in the New York Times : “The whole [JATP] outfit was like a big family. Black musicians couldn’t stay in decent hotels until Norman came along.”
While promoting the JATP series and managing his clients—among them Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Duke Ellington—he also founded the jazz labels Clef in 1946, Norgran in 1953, Verve in 1956, and Pablo in 1973, on which many of the JATP performers appeared. Verve was created primarily as a showcase for Fitzgerald, but it eventually incorporated the earlier labels’ discographies, including many live JATP performances. “I pioneered in certain areas,” Granz said in a 1966 interview with Les Tomkins included on the Jazz Professional website. “I was the first, I think, to do live concert recording—back in 1943. It then became popular, and many other people did it. But for years Jazz At The Philharmonic albums were the only ones of their kind. I was also the first to exploit fully the possibilities of LP [long-play], by having artists get away from the three-minute formula—which most of the first LP’s consisted of, twelve times over. I allowed artists to play for as long as they felt they could justifiably continue to create.”
In the Tomkins interview, Granz divided his professional accomplishments in the early 1960s into three parts: “The first was my record company, Verve Records, the second was managing Ella Fitzgerald and the third was presenting my concerts with artists like Duke, Basie, Jazz At The Philharmonic and, of course, Ella.” Commenting on his artist-manager partnership with Fitzgerald (considered the most fruitful in the history of the business), he said, “I think managing an artist like Ella gives you two choices, as does running a record company,” he said. “One is simply to Manage her as any agent might normally do, and the other is creatively to contribute something. Apart from giving her the exposure on records, which was obvious, because I owned the company, there have been many areas in which I’ve been able, let’s say, to make a contribution to Ella’s point of view, and to the direction which she takes in her public activities.”
After moving to Switzerland in 1959, Granz never organized another JATP tour in the United States, though he did from time to time produce European JATP series; he also continued to manage Fitzgerald, Peterson, and Ellington. In 1960 he sold Verve to MGM for a reported $2.8 million. In 1987 he sold the successful Pablo label, named for his friend Pablo Picasso, to Fantasy Records for an undisclosed sum.
Given Granz’s principled yet controversial stance, perhaps it is not surprising that professional recognition was slow in coming; the Los Angeles Times reported in his obituary that Granz refused to accept a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1994, saying: “I think you guys are a little late.” In 1999 Granz had mellowed enough to accept a lifetime achievement award from Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York City; ill health prevented him from receiving it in person, and Oscar Peterson stood in for him. Granz died on November 22, 2001, in Geneva, Switzerland, of complications from cancer.
Lester Young Trio, Clef/Verve, 1944; reissued, PolyGram, 1994.
Charlie Parker Jam Session, Clef/Verve, 1952; reissued, PolyGram, 1990.
The President Plays with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Clef, 1952; reissued, Verve, 1959.
Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic, Hartford 1953 (reissue), Pablo, 1991.
Ella Fitzgerald, The Cole Porter Songbook Volumes 1-2, Verve, 1957.
Ben Webster Quintet, Soulville, Verve, 1957; reissued, Poly-Gram, 1989.
Ben Webster and Associates, Verve, 1959.
Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster, Verve, 1959.
Ella Fitzgerald, At the Montreaux Jazz Festival, Pablo, 1975.
Norman Granz JATP Carnegie Hall 1949, Pablo, 2002.
Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate, November 25, 2001, p. 13-D.
Chicago Tribune, November 25, 2001, p. C 9.
Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2001, p. B18.
New York Times, November 27, 2001, p. 7.
Washington Post, November 28, 2001, p. C1.
“Jazz Impresario Norman Granz Dead at 83,” CNN.com, http://126.96.36.199/2001/SHOWBIZ/Music/11/25/us.obit.granz.ap (February 22, 2002).
“Norman Granz,” Globalnet, http://www.users.globalnet.co.ukTmcgoni/ella/granzbio.html (February 22, 2002).
“Norman Granz,” Jazz Professional, http://www.jazzprofessional.com/interviews/Norman%20Granz%20interview_1.htm (February 22, 2002).
“Norman Granz, Producer,” Trombone-USA, Jazzmasters, http://www.trombone-usa.com/norman.htm (February 22, 2002).
—D. László Conhaim
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