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Non-Musician Who Played Huge Role in Jazz HistoryCopyright © 2001The Scotsman
Although he never contributed a note of music to jazz, Norman Granz played a major role in the history of the music. He instituted the famous Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts, launched and ran four record labels, including one of the most significant imprints in jazz, Verve Records, and managed the careers of two of its most widely known performers, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson.
In the process, he became jazz's first official millionaire, a fact held against him in some quarters. At the same time, he fought tirelessly on behalf of both his artists and audiences, demanding the same treatment for jazz musicians as accorded to classical performers, and refusing to book his JATP tours into segregated concert halls in the 1940s, long before the major civil rights breakthroughs of subsequent decades.
Granz was of Ukranian-Jewish descent. His family had lost their business in the Depression, and he worked his way through college, then joined MGM as a film editor after his wartime military service. His passion was jazz, and he began a long involvement with the music by persuading Billy Berg, a well-known Los Angeles club owner, to allow him to promote a jam session at his club, the Trouville, on Sunday nights. One of the conditions he imposed was that Berg abandon entirely his whites-only audience policy.
The jam session proved very popular, and set the mould for most of what would follow. Granz took the idea a step further when he booked the Philharmonic Hall for a concert in July 1944, which was also a big success. The rather stuffy venue, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, soon evicted the noisy jazz types, but Granz retained the name for the most successful jazz touring show of the era. His JATP packages crisscrossed America for over a decade, ceasing only with the advent of the rock and roll era in 1957 (he continued to promote tours under that name in Europe into the 1960s).
The formula was simple, but also revolutionary. The artists would operate in the free-wheeling but competitive jam session ethos fostered in after-hours clubs, but would perform in a formal concert hall, and to a desegregated audience. If these conditions were not met, Granz would refuse to accept bookings (regardless of loss of revenue), and even went as far as cancelling a sold-out show in New Orleans because the audience had been segregated.
On stage (and in the studio), Granz encouraged the musicians to grandstand as much as their hearts desired. Musical "battles" were not only encouraged, but were positively mandatory. Critics (a breed for which Granz had only disdain) complained that much of this was crass, and with some justification, but Granz looked after his musicians in a fashion unprecedented in jazz, and audiences revelled in what he had to offer.
He realised early on in the process that there might be a market for live concert recordings of the JATP experience, and scored another major ground-breaking success. The first such recordings were leased to Asch Records in 1946, but Granz quickly set up his own label, Clef, that year.
He launched a second label, Norgran, in 1953, then combined the two into Verve Records in 1956. The advent of the LP era brought Granz new successes, notably the series of near-definitive Songbook recordings he made with Ella Fitzgerald, exploring the repertoire of the great composers of the so-called Golden Age of American popular song.
Granz deserves much of the credit for establishing Fitzgerald as a major star beyond the confines of the jazz audience with these recordings, and his astute management of her career ensured that she remained there.
His work with JATP and his various record labels incorporated contributions from a remarkable roster of the great jazz names of the day, including Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Illinois Jacquet, among many others.
He moved to Geneva at the end of the 1950s, and sold Verve to MGM. He continued to promote tours, acted as manager for Fitzgerald and Peterson, and collected the work of his favourite modern artists, notably Pablo Picasso.
In 1973, he returned to the record business when he launched his Pablo Records label, named after the artist. He amassed a catalogue of well over 300 albums by the time he sold the company to Fantasy Records in 1987, including Fitzgerald, Peterson, Basie and Gillespie, but also some of the most important recordings of artists like Zoot Sims, Benny Carter and Joe Pass.
He added Sarah Vaughan to his roster of artists, and also released important live recordings by John Coltrane, and the first commercial recording of Duke Ellington's The Queen's Suite, originally pressed only as a private gift to its dedicatee, Queen Elizabeth.
Granz himself commented on his low public profile when he acknowledged that people "see the tall old man standing next to Ella Fitzgerald, and they don't know who he is," but if his public profile remained intentionally low, his contribution to jazz was huge. He liked to get his own way, and sometimes talked his artists into unwise decisions, but few of them had anything but praise for him. That alone makes him all but unique amongst concert promoters and record executives.
Granz received few formal honours, although he did produce a classic short jazz film, Jammin' The Blues, directed by Gjon Mili, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1944. He was offered a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1994, but in a characteristic gesture, he declined to accept, saying simply "I think you guys are a little late." Given his often rather slapdash recording techniques and amused disregard for high fidelity sound, the award might have been rather ironic.
He died from complications arising from cancer, and is survived by his wife, Greta.