© - 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 [ : Macmillan, 1988] London
It is a privilege and an honor to have
Gene Lees and Norman Granz – two of our enduring heroes – features on these
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
, 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. Chicago
Oscar once said, "
is shy. People mistake this for arrogance." Norman
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 , where his father owned a department
store, and later to the Long Beach district of central Boyle Heights , a lower-middle-class area, where the
family knew straitened circumstances after his father lost the store in the Depression. Los Angeles
Granz reminisced about
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 Long
Beach settling in Iowa . 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 Long Beach . Mickey Cohen became a gangster; I didn't.
Nobody forced him to become what he became." Boyle Heights
Granz was graduated from Roosevelt High in
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 Boyle Heights and Los Angeles ) and Wall Street opening at ten, I'd have
to be at work at to get the board clean for a 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. New York
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
"So I took my discharge. I went to
and discovered New York 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
"Then I came back to
," 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 Los
Angeles . 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. Texas
"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
." 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. Los Angeles
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
, they were doing so largely before white
audiences - many places would not let blacks enter as customers. This condition
existed in Los Angeles City, and most American cities. In Chicago, Kansas , 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. Los Angeles
Granz had been presenting occasional jam sessions at the Trouville Club, in the Beverly-Fairfax area of
. 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. Los Angeles
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
. 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." Los Angeles
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
in Music Town 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
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
, 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 California 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
- 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. Victoria, British Columbia
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
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." New York
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
. Granz proposed to her the next night.
They were married almost a year later, and in 1949, in Saginaw, Michigan , she became the mother of his daughter.
They were divorced in 1952. Loretta later complained that he never took his mind
off his business. Detroit
"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
are notoriously unruly, and Granz had one
of his most memorable confrontations with a crowd there, at the Theatre des Paris 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 . 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,
, by Benny Carter, who used white European
and black American and Holland 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
. Granz cancelled a Charleston, South
Carolina 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. New Orleans
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
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. Chicago
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
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
- with a partner. Ray Brown.” Canada