Monday, May 26, 2008

Norman Granz: Jazz Impresario

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Over the years, Jazz has had many heroes, but few have done as much for it as Norman Granz who, ironically, never contributed an actual note to the music.

Alex Barris offers this brief chronicle of some of the achievements of one of the great patrons of Jazz. The photograph of Mr. Granz is by William P. Gottlieb and is in the Library of Congress/Gershwin Fund.

By Alex Barris The Jazz Report Summer 1996

“Jazz lover are, by and large, a jaded lot. You need only mention a few words like ‘producer’ or ‘promoter’ and your jaded jazz fan will react as though you had used a dirty word. Of course, sometimes they are right. But not always.

For example, I maintain – and have for some time – that jazz has had no greater friend, certainly among non-musicians, than Norman Granz. Yes, I know about John Hammond, George Wein, Leonard Feather, George Simon, Ira Gitler and Whitney Balliett. I’ll still put Granz ahead of them.

Okay, some reasons. First of all there was Jazz at the Philharmonic [JATP], which, starting in 1943, presented a long-running series of concert tours, attracting countless thousands of young people to the wonders of jazz. True, some of them tended to get noisy, stomped and applauded and cheered and behaved like – well, exuberant kids. (So Had Sinatra fans before that, and Presley, Beatle and Michael Jackson fans since).


But JATP fans got to hear the giants of jazz like Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Willie Smith. And it was at a JATP concert in New York that people outside of Canada were introduced to Oscar Peterson.

In the 1940s and 1950s, racially segregated audiences were still the norm. Not with Granz. He insisted, and got it written into contracts, that in travel arrangements and in accommodations for his musicians, there must be no segregation. And he did not hesitate to cancel dates if these conditions were not met. More, he insisted that the same rules apply to buying tickets and seating arrangements. Which explained why JATP simply did not play in the U.S. south. Granz stuck to his principles.

Then, in 1944, there was Jammin’ the Blues, the first and arguably still the best movie short made that dealt with jazz, presenting Lester Young, Harry Edison, Barney Kessel, Illinois, Jacquet, John Simmons, Red Callender and Sidney Catlett in a jam session atmosphere that was revolutionary for a Hollywood studio (Warner Brothers, in this case, who did not care a hang about jazz but wanted to give the wizard photographer Gjon Mili a shot at directing and allowed Granz to function as producer of the 10-minue film).


Credit Granz also for introducing millions of jazz fans to the brilliant work of graphic artist David Stone Martin (No, Granz did not discover him, nor did he claim to).

Martin had done some album covers for Asch records in 1944. But it was when Granz began to record his JATP albums with Asch that record buyers became aware of Martin’s remarkable work.
And when Granz left Asch to form Clef he persuaded David Stone Martin to join Clef. Indeed Martin’s splendid line drawing of a trumpeter (for which Charlie Shavers was the unwitting model) became Granz’s logo on Clef and later on Verve album covers.


Over a period of two decades, Martin was to produce more than 200 album covers for Granz, most of them startlingly imaginative.

Of course, JATP was only one aspect of Granz’s producing-recording career. There was also once-in-a-lifetime projects such as The Jazz Scene a magnificent package recorded in 1949 (on six 12-inch 78 rpm discs) that presented, in various combinations, such diverse artists as Duke Ellington, Neal Hefti, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich and Bud Powell.

This was issued (on Mercury) in a limited and numbered edition. Only 5,000 copies were made (mine is number 4396). It was later reissued on LP, but it’s hard to find.
[A CD version is still available at:
http://www.amazon.com/Jazz-Scene-Various-Artists/dp/B0000046TH/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1211735841&sr=1-1].

My own favorite on this album is the combination Lester Young, Buddy Rich and Auy Guy (code name of Nat King Cole, who was under contract to Capitol) playing I Want To Be Happy. The package also had some marvelous photos by Mili [see below for photo of Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge] and some equally exquisite drawings by Martin [see above for cover art].

And then, just a few years after that, there was The Astaire Story, in which the famed dancer introduced and sang some of his movie hits, backed by such stellar jazzmen as Oscar Peterson, Charlie Savers, Barney Kessel, Flip Phillips and Ray Brown. Once again, Martin supplied a memorable sketch of Astaire for the cover.


Most of all, however, I think Granz deserves a lot of credit for his dedication to jazz and to the musicians who played it. One important manifestation of that dedication was during the dark decade starting in the mid-50s, when the explosion of rock ‘n roll all but wiped out the market for many jazz artists.

It was during those years that Grant went stubbornly on, recording some of the greatest jazz artists – in many cases, saving them from virtual extinction, at a time when nobody else would touch them. Among those recorded by Granz during those lean years: Art Tatum, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins,
Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Hank Jones and Stan Getz.

Granz also initiated the Ella Fitzgerald “songbook” albums and made no less that 27 albums with Art Tatum, and later fought to regain control of them (he had sold Verve to MGM) so that he could reissue the Tatum albums.

No doubt, the cynics will argue that Granz did all these things to make money. Perhaps. But even if that’s true (and I don’t think it is in every case) the fact that he did them was of immense help to the beleaguered jazz community.

And, finally, I have one more reason for respecting Granz, and I’m willing to admit some prejudice here, because we happen to agree. Once, on a European tour, a reporter asked him which musician most typified jazz for him. Oscar Peterson, who was present, urged Granz to name his idol, Art Tatum. But Granz disagreed: “No,” he said, “it’s Roy Eldridge who embodies what jazz is all about. He’s a musician for whom it’s far more important to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak – even if he falls on his ass in the attempt – than it is to play it safe. That’s what jazz is all about.”

Even if you disagree with his choice of that particular musician, you can’t argue with his yardstick."

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