Thursday, April 10, 2014

Norman Granz - The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice: A Book Review

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

“Granz brought a benevolent order to what previously had been a poorly governed and especially venal sector of the music business, where musicians were all too frequently the biggest losers. His money was about as clean as it gets in show business, especially because of his unstinting personal and financial generosity toward musicians who were in his tours at the time—and often much, much later. He proved that jazz could put bread on musicians' tables and provide him with a livelihood as well.

The record of his business conduct is virtually unblemished, despite the dubious assumption that any promoter who made money on jazz was ransacking others' talent. This book discloses few surprises or unreported scandals regarding his business affairs to contradict the consensus that Granz, although tough and shrewd, was entirely above board in his dealings.

To be sure, his legendary brusqueness, which often carried with it a naive, blunt honesty, put off many natural allies. But he combined his entrepreneurial ambition with self-discipline, love for the music, devotion to its most visible and important artists, and a sense of fairness.”
- Tad Hershorn, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice [Prologue, p. 7]

No one in the Jazz World has ever been more deserving of a first-rate biography than Norman Granz, who passed away in 2001 at the age of eighty-three.

Norman Granz may have waited a while, but he got one with the publication in 2011 of Tad Hershorn’s Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice [Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press].

And it was certainly worth waiting for as Tad's bio is a model of objectivity and comprehensiveness in terms of its treatment of Norman Granz’s life story.

Tad is an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and the extent and the quality of his research does both he and Norman credit for if it is true that an unexamined life is not worth living, then its corollary - a well-lived Life is worth examining - serves Mr. Hershorn well as the modus operandi of his account of Granz’s life.

A chronology of the highlights of Norman’s career, thirty-six pages of footnotes a selected bibliography of archival sources, newspapers, magazines and trade publications, primary published sources, secondary sources and liner notes puts Mr. Hershorn’s Granz biography in another league from the standard, adoring fare that makes up many of the early life histories of important Jazz personages.

Or as John McDonough observed: “The musician-centered view of Jazz has driven many chronicles of Jazz history …. But turning Jazz history into a string of musicians’ bios is like telling American history through the presidents. It may be basic, but it is hardly the whole story.” [Prologue, p. 4; John McDonough, “George Wein: An Impresario’s Life,” Down Beat, October 2003, p. 80].

Many of the major themes that Mr. Hershorn peruses while detailing Granz’s life are contained in the following quotations from the book’s Prologue and Epilogue chapters.

“To tell the Granz story, I have explored how he fulfilled the three oft-repeated aims on which he founded his reputation: presenting good jazz, challenging segregation, and showing that good money could be made by bringing the two together. Granz's brilliance and toughness, along with the era in which he emerged — a confluence of circumstances never to be repeated — made him successful in all three aims and shaped the music business that came after him.” [Prologue, p. 5]

“Granz built up national and international constituencies for his artists, concerts, and recordings as part of his dual mission of making money on jazz and raising its status as an art form. Jazz concerts, intermittent until Granz came along, were packaged as seasonal fare with a strong band name identity in much the same way that classical music had long been handled. In the hands of Granz and others who followed in his wake, these concerts became commercial juggernauts. But it was Granz alone who possessed the concert mechanism—some of the best talent in jazz, the financial resources, and the vision—that permitted him to maintain a near-monopolistic status in hiring, concert presentation, and recordings for a decade beginning in the late 19405. He used that financial leeway to release volumes of JATP records, along with art pieces such as The Jazz Scene and The Astaire Story, precursors to the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks. New York Times jazz critic Peter Watrous,' writing in 1994, said that his "particular genius was to make show business subservient to jazz." [“A Label. A Vision. A Golden Anniversary.”, New York Times, April 3, 1994]

Jazz at the Philharmonic's financial success, which Granz had built up for his concert and recording empires, showed the way to such generational successors as Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein and later Wynton Marsalis, artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Like Granz, they captured the biggest stages for presenting (and defining) jazz in their day, although Granz was the only truly financially independent operator. For their labors as well, some critics denigrated their views of jazz and its direction and meaning and questioned the commercialism of their efforts. But they too secured large, grateful audiences and helped make jazz a viable living.

Granz's saga is far more than just an industry story or the biography of a figure on the music's sidelines. His bold interaction with culture and ideas over decades gives his life the dimensions of a great American story. If history is late in getting to that story, it is partly a measure of the conflicted emotions with which Granz viewed the prospect of such a work. It may be due as well to the broad and layered scope of the story, the fact that the world of this well-known international impresario was populated by giants within music and beyond. Whatever the reasons, Granz became embittered, feeling that America was usually “a little late” to honor her cultural contributions.” [Prologue, pp.7-8]

“The delay in honoring Granz may also stem from the fact that he did not endear himself to writers and others in and beyond the music business. He did not—to put it mildly—glad-hand his way through life. His humanistic values existed in tension with a keen intelligence that deterred fools and discouraged the well-intentioned and well-informed as well.” [Prologue, p. 7]

“His friend Benny Green put it another way when he said that "Norman hasn't got the slightest interest in his reputation. He doesn't care about people's opinions, only the musicians. He looks upon himself as a kind of conduit down which the music has flowed, that's all. In that sense, he has no ego at all." [Prologue, p. 8, Benny Green interview with Elliot Meadow for the BBC2 radio production of Out of the Norm: The Life and Times of Norman Granz, aired December 2003-January 2004].

“If Norman Granz had hoped to be left to rest in peace, the obituaries and tributes that poured forth upon his death would have annoyed him. He had expressed contempt for late honors anyway, and these were as late as they come.

"Granz was a true visionary, plain and simple—as a manager, a producer and a promoter," wrote Jon Thurber in the Los Angeles Times. [Epilogue, p. 387]

"And the man's manner—typically called 'surly' and 'arrogant'—earned him countless enemies and may help explain why his mantel was devoid of industry honors. There were legitimate reasons for his disenchantment. . . . His standards were higher than everyone else's, which may explain why he achieved as much as he did." [Chicago Tribune critic, Howard Reich, Epilogue, p. 387]

"I may not have always liked him, but I did respect him for the implacable belief he had in what he was doing. His achievements between the early 19405 and the late 19808 remain unparalleled. As a label owner, record producer, concert promoter and personal manager he was the perfect middleman in bringing the artist to the public and vice versa on a worldwide basis."[Elliot Meadow, Jazz writer, critic, and editor; “Norman Granz: The Man Who Promoted Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington,” Herald [UK], November 21, 2001; Epilogue p. 387]

“As he saw things, he had merely deployed his energy and intelligence to improve his financial situation over time, as when he had used money from his jazz concerts to purchase a Picasso painting for tens of thousands of dollars and later sold it for millions. ‘When I worked in jazz, if I never did another thing but stay with jazz, you could properly say that I became a rich man in jazz. The reality is that you save your money in an effort to better yourself.’” [Epilogue, p. 389; author interview with Norman Granz, ca. 2000]

“Quite simply, Norman Granz accomplished everything he set out to do. He presented good music, demonstrated that jazz could be a rewarding commercial venture, and enforced his code of personal integrity and social justice within his far-flung jazz kingdom. He was a lone wolf and could be unpredictably brutal or benevolent. These traits shaped how he presented music, as well as how he fought racism. [Epilogue, p. 389]

“Granz could be bluntly and almost vengefully honest; the truth was a core value he rarely made time to dress up or redress. Things were right or wrong; he liked something or somebody or he didn't. He forgave few slights, mistakes, or breaches of integrity. Quickly breaking ties and moving on, he left no small amount of hurt in his wake over the years, though many expressed fierce loyalty and admiration for all he had accomplished. His love was expressed in the shadows of his shyness and accompanied by great generosity. That he could be at once so calculatedly entrepreneurial and so staunch an upholder of human welfare and dignity remains the unsolvable riddle of his life. Piecing together his complicated life is a task that fills many pages but leaves many more that can never be written. He wouldn't have had it any other way.” [Epilogue, p. 391]

Granz was largely a self-educated and self-made man, a point not lost on musicians. He jammed his way to the top with his integrity intact, along with a vision that has stood the test of time for almost seventy years. … [Ibid.]

Norman Granz explained how his philosophy had been shaped by watching the spontaneity of jazz musicians. "I happen to like the jam session, because I'm a great believer in the role of the individual in any art. I don't think it's difficult to argue that each day we have more and more conformity in our lives and less and less opportunity for the individual, whether it be in the state politically, or in business economically. And the same with music. I really feel that jazz as I know it will vanish, because where is the young player going to get an apprenticeship? Where is he going to go sit in? Where is he even going to get a sound playing in a band? There won't even be any bands. It's a question of standards. I'm not looking backwards or being nostalgic. I just don't know how the environment in the future can nurture the individual." [Epilogue, pp. 391-92; transcript of Elliot Meadow 1977 interview with Norman Granz].

Interspersed between these opening and closing reflections are twenty-two chapters detailing all of the significant aspects of Norman Granz’s career from the formation of the first Jazz at The Philharmonic concert in 1944 and all of the subsequent JATP concerts both domestically and internationally, the formation of Clef and Norgan Records beginning in 1947, the management of the careers of Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, the founding of Verve Records in 1956 and the development of the Ella songbook albums, working to help Duke Ellington obtain movie scoring assignments for Anatomy of Murder, Paris Blues and Assault on a Queen, the sale of Verve Records to MGM in 1960, his interest in collecting modern art and his developing friendship with Pablo Picasso, the formation of Pablo Records in 1973 and the receipt in 1999 of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Norman Granz not only rode the crest of the wave of Jazz popularity, both at home and abroad, from approximately, 1945-1965, he was responsible for creating and preserving a large chunk of the music that was performed and recorded during this period.

The Jazz World from 1945-1965 would have been unimaginable without him let alone a far poorer place.

I suppose that it is understandable from a man who had to deal with contentious criticism during every step of his career, but the part I find most difficult to reconcile is Granz’s bitterness, largely, it seems over being unappreciated.

Although understandable to some extent because of the way in which he was hacked and wacked over his career for what he didn’t do [or should have done, according to some], and rarely praised for what he did do, it seems to me that Norman Granz made the human and distressing mistake of expecting gratitude.

I mean as is written in The New Testament’s Saint Luke, Jesus Christ healed ten lepers in one afternoon, only one stopped to thank him.

And the Roman Emperor and Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his diary: “I am going to meet people today who talk too much - people who are selfish, egotistical, ungrateful. But I won’t be surprised or disturbed, for I couldn’t imagine a world without such people.”

It’s natural for people to forget to be grateful; so, if we go around expecting gratitude, we are headed straight for a lot of heartache.

Besides, Norman had the last laugh, for as Mr. Hershorn explains:

“[Norman Granz]... was not so burdened with work that it could interfere with his enjoyment of the good life in an environment rather like that of Southern California, where others shared his zest for fine art, music, food, wine, clothes, and a bohemian pace of life. After the sale of Verve Records, he enjoyed an unprecedented degree of financial independence, and numerous European cities became personally familiar to him. He maintained tastefully appointed apartments in London, Paris, and Geneva, and he had places to stay at La Colombe d'Or in Saint Paul de Vence in the south of France, the Algonquin Hotel in New York, and the Beverly Hills Tennis Club when he was in town on business. The south of France, where some of the country's (and the world's) most renowned artists were living, was not far from Geneva, so he could regularly mix with them as well as with film stars, musicians, writers, and restaurateurs.” [p. 296].

There are few who have lived the Jazz life and ever enjoyed such amenities.

But then, as Mr. Hershorn’s biography superbly reveals, Norman Granz was a one-of-a-kind; he was the epitome of sui generis and as such he created a world for himself a world in which such comforts and joys were the rule rather than the exception.

Order information on Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice is available by going here.

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