Impresario Norman Granz, who set the agenda for the business of jazz through most of the 20th century by producing legendary recordings and making the music accessible to a wider audience, has died. He was 83.
Granz died Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, of complications from cancer, according to Virginia Wicks, an L.A.-based publicist who had a long association with Granz.
A native of Los Angeles whose family lost much of its wherewithal in the Depression, Granz became an astute businessman who made a fortune from the music he grew to love as a young man collecting records in Boyle Heights.
Armed with a unyielding social conscience, a discerning ear and a hard-nosed take-it-or-leave-it approach to business, Granz is credited by many historians with bringing first-rank jazz performers in integrated bands into concert halls across America through a series called Jazz at the Philharmonic.
“Granz was a true visionary, plain and simple--as a manager, a producer and a promoter,” said jazz critic Don Heckman. “Today, at a time when marketing and promotion are an intrinsic part of the jazz world, it’s hard to contextualize what a visionary he was. A half-century ago, when bebop’s primary appeal was to a relatively small niche of dedicated fans, Granz dramatically expanded the audience for what was a seemingly difficult music, both domestically and internationally, via his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.”
Decades before the most productive days of the civil rights movement, Granz helped end the two-track system in which white players generally earned far more than blacks. He paid his performers equally and so would anyone who hired them through him. In Granz’s world, there also was no discrimination in dining or accommodations for his musicians on the road. If the face of bigotry came up at a concert, he canceled the performance. It happened more than once.
Granz, who was of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry, “made a statement that went beyond jazz,” said Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University who is writing a biography of the impresario. “He held the U.S. accountable for the notion of freedom. and he did this years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.”
At one time or another, Granz recorded most of the major names in jazz on the four labels that he owned--Clef, Norgran, Verve and Pablo. His roster was a who’s who of the genre, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson.
He also was a manager. He is credited with making Fitzgerald a far more accessible performer by expanding her repertoire through the “Song Book” series, featuring the work of most of the master composers of American song. He presented Peterson in his first major U.S. appearance--at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1949, and generally directed the pianist’s career.
In recording those great names in jazz, Granz amassed an enormous catalog of music, much of it still in demand today as the lifeline of an industry that in later generations lost much of its commercial and popular appeal.
Born on Aug. 6, 1918, Granz initially lived in South-Central Los Angeles, not far from what in later years was a happening jazz scene on Central Avenue. But the family moved to Long Beach not long after Granz was born to be closer to the department store that his father owned.
The family business was lost during the early years of the Depression and the Granzes ended up in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. Young Granz went to Roosevelt High School and UCLA, taking a minor job in a brokerage house to finance his education.
Demanded Equal Rights for Black Club Patrons
During World War II, Granz served in the Army Air Corps and then the special services branch of the Army, which was charged with entertaining the troops. After receiving his final discharge, Granz had a succession of odd jobs before finding work as a film editor at MGM.
His interest in jazz had started in the 1930s as a minor hobby collecting records. But by the time he came out of the military, he was interested in promoting the music.
“Black musicians were playing all over Los Angeles in the early ‘40s,” Granz recalled years later, “but almost entirely to white audiences. This was because there were very few places that welcomed blacks as patrons. I was particularly aware of this because in addition to my day job as a film editor at MGM I [had] been putting on occasional jam sessions at the Trouville Club in the Beverly Fairfax area. One day Billie Holiday came to me and complained that Billy Berg, who owned the club, wouldn’t admit some of her black friends.”
Granz offered Berg a proposal. He wanted to promote Sunday night, which under existing union rules was a night off for the club’s regular musicians, as a jam session. Granz told Berg he would assure him a good crowd of paying customers, but he added some conditions.
First, tables were to be placed on the dance floor so there would be no dancing. This would become a listening experience.
Second, musicians would be paid a set rate; this arrangement would allow Granz to know in advance who would show up and thus be able to promote the jam sessions to help fill the club.
Third, and most important, African American patrons would no longer be barred--on any night of the week. The color barrier would be broken.
Granz’s Sunday-night jam sessions became the hot ticket around town and featured leading names from well-known bands, including Illinois Jacquet, a young tenor sax player of the Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway bands who became the major attraction of the hot jazz scene that soon moved to a venue called Music Town in South L.A.
By July 1944, Granz was ready to ratchet his notions of promotion up a notch and he found the perfect opportunity in what came to be billed as Los Angeles’ “first full-scale jazz concert.” It was held at Philharmonic Auditorium, which for decades had been the home of the staid L.A. Philharmonic.
The Sunday afternoon concert was anything but staid. The lively jam session was a fund-raiser for the Mexican youths wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to San Quentin in the notorious Sleepy Lagoon case.
The performers that day included Nat King Cole, who had yet to find his career as a singer and was making a living as an influential pianist and leader of a trio. Les Paul, then known as a jazz guitarist, saxophonist Benny Carter, pianist Teddy Wilson and Jacquet were also on hand, among others.
And while the concert netted just over $500 for the fund, it became the framework for Jazz at the Philharmonic, a touring series of jam-session concerts that Granz produced, and later recorded, with some of the top names in the business.
Within a month of the first Philharmonic concert, Granz branched out into film production with “Jammin’ the Blues,” one of the finest short jazz films ever made. Directed by the noted photographer Gjon Mili, the short featured saxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, guitarist Barney Kessel and other jazz greats and was nominated for an Academy Award.
JATP, as Jazz at the Philharmonic was called, came to be another vehicle for integration.
“The whole reason for Jazz at the Philharmonic was to take it to places where I could break down segregation,” Granz explained in Dizzy Gillespie’s book “To Be or Not to Bop.”
Known for providing his touring jazz musicians with first-class travel and hotel accommodations, Granz once said: “I insisted that my musicians were to be treated with the same respect as Leonard Bernstein or [Jascha] Heifetz because they were just as good, both as men and musicians.”
“With Norman everything was first class,” trumpet player Clark Terry told jazz critic Nat Hentoff some years ago. “The travel, the hotels, everything. He had deep pockets. The others had short pockets.”
Granz would heavily promote the shows by buying newspaper ads of equal size in major black- and white-owned newspapers and establishing the prices for every level of seating.
In Kansas City, JATP played the first mixed-race dance in the city’s history. In Charleston, S.C., the first mixed-race concert featured JATP.
But Granz encountered resistance in other parts of the country. He once pulled his band out of a sold-out concert in New Orleans when he found that the seating was segregated.
Recording History With ‘Jazz at Philharmonic
After renting an auditorium in Houston, Granz removed the signs that said “White toilets” and “Negro toilets.” And for those white Texans who balked when they learned they’d have to sit next to blacks, he told them, “You sit where I sit you. You don’t want to sit next to a black, here’s your money back.”
In 1947, Granz told Down Beat magazine, he lost $100,000, then a sizable figure in the entertainment business, by turning down bookings in segregated concert halls across America.
Over the years, Granz had tried to sell various record companies on releasing live material from his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, which by 1946 had been banned at Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles, where it started. Armed with a stack of records, he went to New York City, opened the phone book and, starting with the A’s, found Asch Records, owned by Moses Asch.
“Asch flipped,” Granz said later in an interview with noted jazz critic Leonard Feather. “He put the records out as Volume One ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic,’ and it was incredibly popular. I imagine it sold 150,000 copies.” “Jazz at the Philharmonic, Volume I” became the first jazz concert recording ever issued.
Granz established two record labels, Clef in 1946 and Norgran in 1953, both of which he incorporated into Verve Records, the powerhouse label he launched in 1956. The first artist signed to his new company: Fitzgerald, whom Granz considered the world’s greatest jazz singer and who had been recording exclusively for Decca since the 1930s.
Granz had added Fitzgerald to his Jazz at the Philharmonic roster in 1949 and became the singer’s personal manager in 1954. Many consider the professional pairing the most productive artist-manager partnership in jazz history.
Under the Verve label, Fitzgerald recorded “The Cole Porter Song Book,” which became the 11th biggest LP of the year. It was the first in a series of albums produced by Granz featuring the singer’s versions of works by Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwin brothers and other songwriters.
Feather credited Granz with bringing Fitzgerald “to a whole new plateau and a whole new audience with those records. He broke her into a much broader market--she wasn’t just in the jazz market anymore.”
Fitzgerald recalled years later that “Norman thought I could do more different types of songs; and how right he was! I’ll always be grateful for that.”
With Verve, Granz was now in the commercial music market for the first time. The company was soon turning out 150 albums a year, recording everyone from Jane Powell and Mitzi Gaynor to Bing Crosby and Ricky Nelson.
The record label also produced spoken-word albums with well-known names such as Evelyn Waugh, Linus Pauling and Dorothy Parker. And there were big-selling albums with comedians Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters.
As Verve was succeeding, the success of Granz’s JATP concert tours began to decline: Expenses were high and he could no longer afford many of the artists, including Fitzgerald. The rise of rock n’ roll was also a factor. Although Granz continued to produce the European tours, his last JATP tour in America came in the fall of 1957.
But as Verve grew, Granz’s interest in running the company waned. He moved to Switzerland in 1959 and sold the record company to MGM for $2.8 million a year later.
Granz continued to manage Fitzgerald and Peterson as well as produce European JATP tours and promote appearances by Basie, Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles and others over the next decade.
‘Cream of the Crop’ Is Treated Accordingly
He returned to the recording business when he produced a JATP reunion concert in Santa Monica in 1972 with Fitzgerald, Basie and several guest artists. The recording, which he originally released through mail order, led to the formation of Pablo in 1973.
Pablo Records--named after Granz’s favorite artist, Pablo Picasso--built an impressive catalog of some 350 albums by Fitzgerald, Peterson, Basie, Gillespie, Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Zoot Sims and many other artists. Granz sold the Beverly Hills company in 1987 to Fantasy Records of Berkeley for an undisclosed sum.
After JATP quit touring in America, Granz took on some additional work. He managed Marlene Dietrich’s tumultuous return to West Germany in 1960 and battled the State Department to bring Yves Montand, an avowed communist, to New York City for his first appearances in the United States in 1959.
“Time and time again, Norman stated that his three goals were to promote integration, present good jazz and to show that good money could be made from promoting good jazz,” said biographer Hershorn. “He succeeded in all three.”
“Musicians who worked for him were the cream of the crop over decades, and with Norman, they had the best opportunities in terms of pay, exposure and time and time again, what you hear from musicians was that he insisted that their dignity be recognized.”
But Granz was also a hard-nosed man and had a simple credo, “If you don’t get substantially what you want, be ready to walk. And don’t look back.”
Nat Cole, once recalling the early days of their friendship said: “Even in those days he would not knuckle down to anybody. A lot of people dislike him, but I understood his attitude; he just knew exactly what he wanted and exactly how he was going to get it.
Granz turned down a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1994, saying simply: “I think you guys are a little late.”
He is survived by his wife, Greta.