Norman Granz wasn't a complicated man. He was merely an entrepreneur who loved highly creative people and felt their brilliance deserved wider recognition. Once you understand this about him, much of what comes next falls neatly into place. For years Granz has been considered an enigma because most people like him tended to go into other lines of work or rarely cared as much as he did about the creative people in their employ.
Through Tad Hershorn's new biography Norman Granz: the Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press), we now see a picture of someone who championed genius and spent so much time around major artists that he cared little for those who weren't among his favorites. To Granz, art mattered more than almost everything else, a passion and viewpoint that is exceedingly rare among to today's successful entrepreneurs.
In Part 2 of my conversation with Tad, the author and archivist talks about how Granz pulled high-level jazz out of the smokey clubs and put it on the stages of concert halls, and why art and artists held a special place in Granz's heart:
JazzWax: Your book’s subtitle says Granz used jazz for justice. How so?
Tad Hershorn: Granz’s overriding aim was to challenge segregation in theaters, hotels, trains, buses and society at large, using jazz as his medium. He also strived to show that good money could be made in jazz, and he was quick to spread the wealth down to those who created the music. Their dignity and well-being were of the utmost importance to him. [Photo of tenor saxophonist Lester Young and Granz signing autographs around 1947, courtesy of Tad Hershorn]
JW: Was part of Granz’s motivation a desire to see jazz elevated to classical music’s level?
TH: Granz’s vision for jazz’s long-term prominence as an art form was explicitly stated in many early press accounts as well as in his concert programs. In 1944 he wrote, “A good concert is better for music-making than a nightclub full of patrons more interested in drinking than listening. A good acoustically alive theater or hall is the best place to hear jazz. A dark, smoky cellar may look romantic in the small hours, but late night sessions produce more bad music than people are capable of realizing at the time.” Granz's motive was to gain acceptance for a form of music that he always found astonishing and exciting.
JW: But there was always the risk of stiffening jazz in the process, no?
TH: Granz worked to overcome the rigidity of the concert-hall sites. Nevertheless, he took flak from many different corners regarding his phenomenally successful shows. Grief came from critics who believed jazz did not have a place in august cultural palaces such as concert halls. Others felt that jazz did not have to prove itself outside of its traditional environment, which had nurtured the music. And then there were those who did not care for JATP’s exhibitionist ways. Granz didn’t care about any of it. He was more than satisfied to present JATP before the multitudes whose enthusiasm and dollars left critics in the dust as far as he was concerned.
JW: Was part of his motive for large-scale events simply a need to generate revenue?
TH: Absolutely. Granz explained to me that his cumulative weekly salaries approached $20,000 by the early ‘50s and required venues large enough to make his payroll. To fill halls, he constantly looked for ways to emphasize the entertainment value in an effort to sell out houses. His attitude about his critics was pretty much “screw ‘em.” To Granz, he had taken jazz to places outside of New York that they’d never heard of. He also felt that his critics had no clue about business matters or the burdens of keeping a show on the road. [Photo of Jazz at the Philharmonic musicians posing on the tarmac in Honolulu en route to Tokyo in October 1953, courtesy of Hank O’Neal]
JW: By today's standards, Granz seems to have had it right.
TH: Granz’s vision of taking jazz outside the nightclub and onto the concert-hall stage presaged the establishment of Jazz at Lincoln Center by decades. He sensed the attrition of jazz’s originators and that the music would eventually reach a repertory stage. By the late ‘80s, with the sale of Pablo Records in 1987, Granz sadly concluded that jazz had passed him by.
JW: Why was he so detached from the jazz scene?
TH: Most of jazz’s newer movers and shakers in the '60s and beyond were little more than names to him. That feeling was only enhanced by his self-imposed exile from the jazz scene by living in Europe. He was saddened and embittered by the ongoing depletion of the giants whose careers he had helped and whose music he had recorded. Their hallowed names, for Granz, embodied jazz itself. Nothing else would do. [Photo of Norman Granz writing on his balcony in Geneva, Switzerland, about three months before his death of cancer on November 22, 2001, courtesy of the Grete Granz Collection]
JW: Much of his success rested on jazz’s adaptation of the 12-inch LP in the mid-‘50s, yes?
TH: Absolutely. Granz pounced on the advent of the long-playing 10-inch record in the late ’40s. The same was true with the 12-inch LP. He imagined that the LP would benefit jazz two ways: First, the 20-plus minutes contained on each side of a 12-inch disc could capture entire extended jam sessions that were his bread and butter and first love. In the days of the 78-rpm record, solos had to be spread out over three or four discs. Second, he saw the more meaningful sequencing of songs and the possibility for concept albums devoted to single composers, for example.
JW: Why did Granz move from Los Angeles to New York in the late '40s?
TH: Just as Jazz at the Philharmonic was constantly on the move, so was Granz in the early years as his enterprises took form. First, Granz and JATP were a Los Angeles story—but only until he established himself as a force in jazz in 1945. Then Granz promoted concerts in New York, becoming the head of the jazz division of the newly founded Mercury Records in 1947.
JW: And then he was back in California.
TH: Yes. Granz worked out of the offices of a Detroit advertising executive in 1948 and early 1949 after meeting his first wife. They had one child, who was born with development disabilities, and soon moved to California along with a daughter from his wife's previous marriage. Granz established permanent offices at 451 North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills in 1952, which served as headquarters for his record labels, concerts and management operations for Ella Fitzgerald. [Pictured, the address and new building today, using Google Maps]
JW: Why did he move to Switzerland in 1959?
TH: Granz knew that Europe was destined to be his ultimate home after his initial trip there in 1950. Particularly in later years, he transacted much of his business by phone, since he loathed time-consuming face-to-face meetings that cramped a way of life that was both intensely focused and laid back.
JW: Granz sold Verve to MGM in 1961. Why?
TH: The sale of Verve was negotiated during much of 1960 and culminated in the final transaction in January 1961. The price tag was around $2.8 million, which Granz received in Deutschmarks, which were then stronger than the dollar. By then he was in Europe enjoying a new lifestyle.
JW: Was it a good deal?
TH: Whether the sale or its timing was a good or bad move is not obvious at first glance. Granz’s attorneys tried to dissuade him on the grounds that Verve would become an even more valuable property within a few short years. Of course, Granz could have made out well in the rising rock market by hiring young producers to sign emerging and top talent for his label. But Granz was never a conventional businessman. As with his abandonment of domestic touring of JATP after 1957, he wanted out of the recording business, and only a clean break would suffice.
JW: Was there a drawback to the sale?
TH: The negative side effect was that Granz reluctantly agreed to a seven-year, non-competition contract that kept him out of recording studios—except for continuing to produce most of Ella Fitzgerald’s records in the sixties.
JW: What did he do with profits from the sale?
TH: Granz took the money and immediately began amassing a vast world-class collection of modern art. He had long haunted art museums and galleries across Europe and the U.S., developing an eye for fine art and, later, the art of the art deal. Granz's self-education in art finds its analogy in how he learned the concert and recording business, cooking, literature, philosophy, politics, economics and any number of other topics of interest to him. [Pictured: Seated Woman by Pablo Picasso, an oil painting that is part of the Norman Granz Collection]
JW: Did he run out of money?
TH: Hardly. In the ‘60s, art collectors like Granz could acquire museum-quality works by Picasso from across every period and style for just tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, in the coming decades those same works would fetch millions.
JW: So was art collecting a business move?
TH: No. He bought neither for investment nor social cache. He acquired what he liked in bulk and even became friends with Picasso, in part because Picasso admired his great eye for the artist’s tougher, more offbeat works. Granz’s holdings by the late ‘60s represented an immense fortune if it had been kept together. [Photo of Pablo Picasso and Norman Granz posing with Ping-Pong paddles in the late '609s, courtesy of the Grete Granz Collection]
Tomorrow, Tad talks about two mindblowers he encountered while researching Granz's life, and why Granz held grudges.
JazzWax pages: Tad Hershorn's biography, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press), is available here.
JazzWax note: If you're in New York this Thursday, Tad Hershorn will be hosting a "Listening Party" at 7 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tad will talk about his book and play audio and video clips of Norman Granz. For more information, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Charlie Parker and strings in 1952 with Stella by Starlight, a session held under the "personal supervision of Norman Granz..."