Monday, April 30, 2012

“Norman’s Conquests:” Gene Lees on Norman Granz

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Very few people have done as much for Jazz or have been as important to the music and its makers as Norman Granz.

Many of the reasons why this is so are explained and recounted in the following essay by Gene Lees which is excerpted from his biography Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing [London: Macmillan, 1988]

It is a privilege and an honor to have Gene Lees and Norman Granz – two of our enduring heroes – features on these pages.

© -  Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

From the time they first met, Oscar Peterson … never made an important career decision without consulting Norman Granz. With the possible exception of the long association of Louis Armstrong with Joe Glaser, there has never been an instance in jazz of so long a relationship between an artist and manager, and certainly not one involving so close a personal friendship.

In 1955, noting that jazz had achieved in a short time a notable degree of acceptance as an art form, with a jazz course instituted at North Texas State University, the appearance of Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada, performances by Dizzy Gillespie in Yugoslavia and by Louis Armstrong in Africa's Gold Coast (later Ghana), Leonard Feather wrote in Esquire mag­azine:

"That jazz, which a decade ago was hardly ever heard in a con­cert hall, far less recognized by the U.S. government, could have reached this summit of prestige and propaganda value was aston­ishing to some, incomprehensible to others. To many observers, however, it may have seemed like nothing more or less than a logi­cal outgrowth of the efforts on the part of one man to launch jazz as an international commodity. The man in question is Norman Granz, an irascible, slangy, expensively-casually-dressed, impul­sive, epicurean, much-hated and much-loved man who, at 38, is not only the world's foremost jazz impresario, but also can claim to have made more money exclusively from jazz than anyone else in its relatively short and turbulent history.

"Granz, who has often stated that his objectives are, in the order of their importance, to make money, to combat racial prejudice and to present good jazz, is an enigma whose many-sided character is known only to a few friends, mostly musicians who have worked for him over an extended period."

He has been described as a tight man with a dollar and bearer of grudges. His relations with the press have sometimes been abra­sive. Ted Williams, the great jazz photographer who was then on staff at Ebony, recalls that once in Chicago, angry for some reason at press photographers, Granz imposed the ingenious punishment of covering the spotlights with red gels, knowing that black-and-white film will not register red light. So the cameramen were effec­tively barred from photographing the concert. Many people, how­ever, cite examples of Granz's generosity, particularly to musicians whose work he values.

Oscar once said, "Norman is shy. People mistake this for arro­gance."

Granz is tall - six feet - and good-looking. His hair had thinned by his thirties. His eyebrows, which have repeatedly been described as Mephistophelean, curl up at their outer ends. Leo­nard Feather, in his Esquire portrait, noted his expression of "aloof disdain" and the succession of "pouting blondes" in Granz's life.

Granz was born in Los Angeles August 6, 1918, which makes him, like Oscar, a Leo. His family at the time lived near the Central Avenue area. They moved down the coast to Long Beach, where his father owned a department store, and later to the Boyle Heights district of central Los Angeles, a lower-middle-class area, where the family knew straitened circumstances after his father lost the store in the Depression.

Granz reminisced about Long Beach to Feather, saying it was "predominantly a Midwestern community in its thinking. We were one of about half a dozen Jewish families in the whole city. I remember there used to be a gag about all the retired businessmen from Iowa settling in Long Beach. And I think I remember the Ku Klux Klan used to parade there in their nightshirts. But I don't recall that it had any influence on me at all at the time. I suppose that the reason I can mix so easily with minority members arose from my playing with the kids on Central Avenue, when it was a heterogeneous district with all minorities represented.'' Granz says of the later part of his youth, "Mickey Cohen and I came from the same area in Boyle Heights. Mickey Cohen became a gangster; I didn't. Nobody forced him to become what he became."

Granz was graduated from Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights in 1935. He went to work in a brokerage office to earn the money to study at UCLA. "There was never enough money for a car," he told Feather, "so I spent the better part of my life in buses and streetcars. During daylight-saving time, with a three-hour time difference (between Los Angeles and New York) and Wall Street opening at ten, I'd have to be at work at six a.m. to get the board clean for a seven a.m. opening. In those days the clerks worked with chalk and chamois; we had no automatic boards. And during that time I played basketball at UCLA and stayed up at nights studying." Granz picked up invaluable financial insights during his days in that brokerage house.

Granz joined the United States Army Air Corps some months prior to Pearl Harbor. "The war was already on in Europe," he told me in 1987. "And I felt we would be drawn into it. They were put­ting out notices on the campus that if you enlisted, you could choose your branch of service. So I enlisted. It was obvious in the days after Pearl Harbor that I wasn't going to become a pilot. They gave you a choice. You could become a bombardier or get out of the Air Corps and wait for your draft call.

"So I took my discharge. I went to New York and discovered 52nd Street."

At the time, 52nd Street was like some kind of incredible fer­mentation vat for jazz. It was possible for Granz to walk from one club to another to see one great jazz player after another - many of whom he would later produce on records.

"Then I came back to Los Angeles," he continued, "and began to book my jam sessions at the Trouville Club. I got drafted about May, and I got Basie and Nat Cole to play for the draftees. Then I got shipped to Texas. I applied for officer's training. They did an IQ test on you and another for mechanical aptitude. I proved to be not very mechanical, but I apparently got a good score on the IQ and it looked like I was going to go to officer's training. The army was very segregated in those days, and I had begun to mix with a lot of the black GIs. My reputation for that had already begun with the night-clubs. And I found out I wasn't going to officer's training.

"As a company clerk, I had access to a lot of literature. I came across a regulation that said if you had applied for officer's training and been rejected, you could apply for a discharge on the grounds that if you weren't good enough to be an officer you weren't good enough for the army, which I thought was extremely strange rea­soning. But I applied for it and got my discharge in 1943 and started my things in Los Angeles." He was twenty-four years old. Granz had been a big-band fan until he heard the famous Coleman Hawkins record of Body and Soul in 1939. This remarkable record­ing was one of the harbingers of the bebop revolution that would arrive within five years. In any case, it was Granz's introduction to small-group jazz at its most creative.

But his reason for becoming an impresario, he has repeatedly said, was less a love of music than a sense of social outrage. Though black jazz musicians were playing all over Los Angeles, they were doing so largely before white audiences - many places would not let blacks enter as customers. This condition existed in Chicago, Kansas City, and most American cities. In Los Angeles, the discrimination was as fully institutionalized as it was in the American South: it was the firm and simple policy of night-clubs not to admit black patrons. And, as we have noted, the same policy often applied in Canadian clubs and dance halls.

Granz had been presenting occasional jam sessions at the Trou­ville Club, in the Beverly-Fairfax area of Los Angeles. He was par­ticularly disturbed by the tears of Billie Holiday after its manage­ment refused to let some of her black friends come in to hear her.

Finally, Granz went to Billy Berg, a well-known night-club operator, with a proposal. Granz was aware that a new union ruling required that regularly employed musicians be given one night a week off. "Give me Sunday nights when the club is dark and the house band is off," he told Berg, "and I’ll give you a jam session and a crowd of paying customers." Berg expressed interest.

Granz attached three conditions to the deal. First, rather than use drop-in musicians playing for pleasure, he wanted the players to be employed and paid, which would allow him to advertise them in advance; second, tables were to be placed on the dance floor, which would make it impossible to do anything but listen; third, the club would be opened to black as well as white patrons, and not only on Sunday night but all week. Berg agreed.

"I think the cats got $6 each," Granz recalled. "And those were good days for getting musicians in Los Angeles. Duke Ellington's band was around town; Jimmie Lunceford's men were available; Nat Cole, who had the trio at the 331 Club, was my house pianist; Lester Young and his brother Lee were regulars."

Drummer Lee Young described Granz at that time as "a real Joe College type, with the brown-and-white shoes, the open collar, the sweater and the general Sloppy Joe style; he was just a guy that was always around, and at first we wondered what he did for a living. He was a lone wolf. We'd drink malteds together - neither of us ever drank liquor - and before long I'd be going over to his side of town and he'd be visiting mine, and we'd be playing tennis."

The late Nat Cole knew Granz as far back as 1941. "He'd bring a whole bunch of records over and we'd listen to them together and have dinner," Cole told Leonard Feather. Cole's stature as a singer has completely overshadowed his importance as a pianist. Cole was to have an enormous influence on Oscar Peterson, and on Bill Evans as well, which fact alone defines him as one of the substantial formative forces in jazz history. He had not begun to sing when Granz first knew him. Cole said: "He had that sloppy Harvard look, and even in those days he wouldn't knuckle down to anybody. A lot of people disliked him, but I understood his attitude; he just knew what he wanted and exactly how he was going to get it. I remember when the booking agents used to call him a capitalistic radical, which of course wasn't right."

Sunday became Billy Berg's most lucrative night of the week, a success that was not unnoticed by other club owners. Other clubs had different dark nights, and Granz set up a circuit of them for his musicians, putting himself in an advantageous situation with own­ers, for whom he made money, and with musicians, whom he was able to offer four or five nights of work a week.

In early 1944, Granz initiated a series of jazz concerts at a place called Music Town in South Los Angeles. He presented, along with his regulars, musicians from visiting bands, including the tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, at that time known chiefly for his work with Lionel Hampton and Cab Galloway.

At this time, twenty-one young Chicanos had been arrested after what the press called the "Zoot Suit Riots," charged with murder, convicted, and imprisoned in San Quentin. The case became a cause celebre in southern California, and a defence fund was established. Granz remembered: "There were so many kids accused that it smacked of a prejudice case. Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and a lot of other Hollywood people were involved in the thing, which was called the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. I didn't even remember where Sleepy Lagoon was, and I didn't know what the hell was going on with the case, but it did seem to be a prejudice case, and this was a chance to try out one of my ideas, which was to put on a jazz concert at the Philharmonic."

The concert was held at Philharmonic Auditorium on a Sunday afternoon in July. The cast of musicians included Nat Cole, who was on the verge of enormous commercial success; Les Paul, then known as a jazz guitarist, who would later sell his highly commer­cial overdubbed guitar-and-vocal records in the millions; pianist Meade Lux Lewis, one of the great boogie-woogie masters; and saxophonist Jacquet, whose screaming high notes, according to Down Beat, sent the audience of young people wild. The concert raised $500 for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Fund.

For the rest of that year Granz presented Jazz at the Philhar­monic as a monthly event. The following year, as World War Two approached its end, he took his company of players on a tour of the West Coast, which got as far as Victoria, British Columbia - and heard Oscar for the first time, on a juke-box. "But it broke me," Granz said. "I had to hock everything I owned to get the musicians back." It should be noted that other impresarios in similar condi­tions have been known to leave their artists stranded. It is also nota­ble that Granz by now had something to hock.

His reverses were temporary. He was about to become a significant factor in the record industry.

Granz had tried to sell various companies on releasing material recorded in his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts. Experi­enced record men thought the idea was ridiculous - you didn't put out "live" recordings of concerts complete with applause and other audience noises.

Granz went to New York carrying a stack of his JATP record­ings. This was before the general use of electromagnetic tape in the record industry, and the music was on bulky twelve-inch acetate discs. He opened the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory at record companies, the first one of which, in the alphabetical sequence, happened to be Asch Records, owned by the late Moses Asch. Granz telephoned him and made an appointment. He was trying to sell records from another session he had supervised, this one by singer Ella Logan. Asch had no interest in this material but, as Granz was about to leave his office, asked about the other batch of records he was carrying under his arm. Granz unwrapped and played How High the Moon from one of his JATP concerts. "Asch flipped," Granz recalled to Feather. "He put the records out as Volume One of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and it was incredibly pop­ular. I imagine it sold about 150,000 albums, but I never got an accounting, because Asch eventually not only lost the rights, he lost his whole company."

The record, which featured a long solo by Illinois Jacquet and the drumming of Gene Krupa - billed as "Chicago Flash" because he was under contract to another label, though most young jazz fans knew who it was - had an enormous impact. This was the first jazz-concert recording ever issued. (The recording of the famous Benny Goodman 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall was not released until 1950.) And How High the Moon became for a time a sort of national anthem of jazz.

The period saw the sundown of the big bands and rising interest in small-group jazz played by veterans of those bands. Granz was the right man at the right place at the right time to take advantage of the situation. One of the main causes of the decline of the big bands was the spreading business failure of the ballrooms and dance pavilions that operated on the outskirts of cities all over North America, which in turn was caused by the conspiracy of automotive, tire, and road-building interests to buy up and dis­mantle the superb interurban trolley systems that, among other things, carried young audiences to those locations. Jazz had to take to the night-clubs in small-group formats: there was nowhere else for it to go, excepting concert halls.

And it was Granz who opened their stage doors for jazz musicians. He was the first producer to present small-group jazz with the emphasis on improvisation, as opposed to the orchestrated big-band form of it, in a touring com­pany. After the success of How High the Moon, Granz's players began criss-crossing the continent.

In 1947, when he was twenty-nine, Granz met a tall blonde girl named Loretta Snyder Sullivan, who was passing out leaflets at a JATP concert in Saginaw, Michigan. Granz proposed to her the next night. They were married almost a year later, and in 1949, in Detroit, she became the mother of his daughter. They were divorced in 1952. Loretta later complained that he never took his mind off his business.

"Moreover," she told Feather, "I was ill-advised enough to tell him I disliked some of his records."

From the very beginning, Granz was criticized for appealing to the lowest level of jazz-audience taste, with emphasis on the high-note tenor of Illinois Jacquet and, later, drum battles between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

"The critics used to review the audience as harshly as the musi­cians," Granz told writer John McDonough in an interview pub­lished in Down Beat in 1979. "They criticized them for cheering too loud, whistling too much and so on. And they accused the musicians and myself of soliciting this kind of behavior from the crowds.
I used to answer reviews like that, because they ignored so many other aspects of the presentation. They said Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips played differently in the jam sessions than they did with [Lionel] Hampton or Woody Herman. That was non­sense. Critics would ignore a set by Lennie Tristano, hardly a panderer to public tastes; a set by Ella Fitzgerald, who did mostly ballads; or a set by Oscar Peterson or the Modern Jazz Quartet."

Granz would sometimes stride angrily onstage and tell an audi­ence the concert would not continue until they became quiet. The jazz fans of Paris are notoriously unruly, and Granz had one of his most memorable confrontations with a crowd there, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees.

Clarinetist Buddy de Franco was performing with the Oscar Peterson Trio. "The French felt that no white man could play jazz anyway," Granz said as he recalled the incident. "Buddy got into a solo on Just One of Those Things" - Granz always remembers what tune was being played at the time of any given incident - "and just couldn't get out of it. That happens to people sometimes. It was a very fast tempo, and Buddy just kept going. The trio started to exchange glances. The audience began to get restless, then they started whistling and throwing coins. I don't know how they stopped it, I think Oscar just went clunk on the piano and ended it. Buddy came offstage just shaking, he was very hurt. And I got mad.

"I got out a chair and went out onstage and sat down. First of all, I told them I wasn't going to speak French to them. And then I said, 'Okay, and I'll tell you something else. You paid me a certain amount of money for two hours of music. I already have your money in my pocket, and I am not going to give it back. This con­cert ends at five o'clock. Whether you want to listen to this yelling or to music is up to you.' And gradually they began to shush each other up, which is the way it had to be done, and the concert went on.

"I had a number of friends at that concert. One of them was the screenplay writer Harry Kurnitz. He said to me afterwards, 'I've never seen anything like it. That's the first time anybody ever got the best of a French audience.'"

In 1955, Granz said, "I don't like to talk about exciting an audi­ence, because it always implies melting. Jazz has always been, to me, fundamentally the blues and all the happy and sad emotions it arouses. I dig the blues as a basic human emotion, and my concerts are primarily emotional music. I've never yet put on a concert that didn't have to please me, musically, first of all. I could put on as cerebral a concert as you like, but I'd rather go the emotional route. And do you know, the public's taste reflects mine - the biggest flop I've ever had in my life was the tour I put on with some of the cere­bral musicians like Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan."

That statement takes on a certain irony when read today: not long thereafter the Dave Brubeck Quartet became so hugely suc­cessful that it made the cover of Time and fell under criticism for "being commercial." And Gerry Mulligan would become compar­ably popular; Granz would himself record Mulligan.

In earlier times, jazz was kept firmly segregated: white players never appeared onstage with black players, except in after-hours clubs where they could go to jam. The first integrated orchestra was organized in 1937 in Scheveningen, Holland, by Benny Car­ter, who used white European and black American and Caribbean jazz players. Within a few years, Benny Goodman was featuring Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Charlie Christian with his band, Artie Shaw hired Hot Lips Page, and Tommy Dorsey hired Sy Oliver - all examples of black players joining white bands. Finally, Count Basic hired Buddy Rich, an early example of a white player in a black band, and Dizzy Gillespie from his early days as a leader manifested indifference to color in his hiring practices.

Granz perceived that integrating the performers was not enough: audiences had to be integrated as well. And he used the economic power that JATP gave him to do it. Promoters seeking to book his concerts were presented with contracts forbidding dis­crimination at the door. JATP played the first concert for an integrated audience in the history of Charleston, South Carolina. Granz cancelled a New Orleans concert when he learned that while blacks were being sold tickets, they would be segregated from the white audience. He put his artists up at the best hotels, often hotels that had previously been barred to blacks, and moved them from one engagement to another by airline, rather than the long dreary bus rides that are among the many ordeals of the jazz life, and on at least one known occasion he chartered a plane to get his company out of a southern city after a concert rather than let it spend a night under Jim Crow conditions.

In 1947, Granz set up the first of what would prove to be a series of record companies, Clef Records, which was distributed by Mer­cury Records, a Chicago company. He commissioned the brilliant graphic artist David Stone Martin to design the album covers of the new label. Martin turned in a memorable series of pen-and-brush drawings in his distinctive spidery line style, which had a curiously improvisatory quality that suited it well to the subject matter and made him as famous among jazz fans as the musicians he portrayed. Martin's vivid drawing of a trumpet player in the throes of creation, seen from a low left angle, became the logo of Clef Records. And Granz too became as famous as any of his art­ists.

This, then, was the formidable figure, a tall, good-looking, very famous self-made millionaire at thirty-one, who came to hear Oscar Peterson at the Alberta Lounge, and took him off to Carne­gie Hall in September 1949.

In the aftermath of the Carnegie concert, Granz, already Peterson's manager, had many offers for the pianist's services. He passed them up, urging Oscar to return for the time being to Can­ada.

He said, "I think you've done it now, but let's just cool it. Let's do this properly. I want to find out first what direction you want to go in. Then we'll sit down and talk sensibly about the things I think you should be thinking about doing. There's plenty of time. You've done it now, you've garnered the attention."

And Oscar went home to Canada - with a partner. Ray Brown.”