Tad Hershorn spent decades working on Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press). For his newly published biography, Tad interviewed Granz multiple times before his death. Though Tad had enormous respect for Granz and his accomplishments on behalf of jazz and civil rights, he maintains a steely objectivity in his writing, determined to paint a portrait of Granz that's both detailed and honest, warts and all. [Photo of Tad Hershorn by Ed Berger]
Among the most intriguing parts of the book are the sections that tightly render Granz's clashes with heavyweights in the music industry. Most surprising of all, perhaps, is Granz and Frank Sinatra's mutual animosity. Granz fairly or unfairly brands Sinatra a boor and a racist. Much of Granz's beef with Sinatra was professional and his displeasure with the callous and shabby way in which Sinatra treated black jazz greats.
In Part 3 of my four-part interview with Tad, the author and archivist talks about Granz's early sensitivity to social and racial issues as well as the Granz-Sinatra feud:
JazzWax: What was the most mind-blowing thing you learned about Granz’s early years?
Tad Hershorn: By tracking down Archie Green in San Francisco in July 2001, I was able to gain insight into what shaped his youth. Granz and Green had become close during their days at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the racially and ethnically mixed Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles between 1932 and 1935. “The best thing that happened to me in high school was meeting Archie Green,” Granz wrote in a passage from his unfinished autobiographical writings.
JW: What did those two share in common?
TH: Green, like Granz, was the son of Ukrainian Jews who had fled their homeland around the turn of the last century. Green, whose father was a socialist, had known Granz’s parents and steered Granz’s insatiable thirst for knowledge toward such opinionated publications as The New Republic, The Nation, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. They also attended what Green called “New Deal Culture,”—Works Progress Administration’s productions of The Hot Mikado and The Swing Mikado, the Sinclair Lewis play It Can’t Happen Here, as well as Duke Ellington’s racially aware musical Jump for Joy, which played at Los Angeles’ Mayan Theater for three months in 1941.
JW: So Granz was socially conscious from an early age?
TH: Yes. Green went on to a storied career in folklore and folk music and the history of working people and labor unions, virtually inventing the field of “laborlore.” As Green once said, “I went vernacular, and Granz went jazz.” The highlight of Green’s career came after lobbying in the halls of Congress almost single-handedly for 10 years when the law creating the American Folklife Center at Library of Congress passed in 1976. [Photo of Norman Granz and Nat Cole posing backstage after the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert on July 2, 1944, courtesy of Jean Bach]
JW: Both went folk, in some ways, if one considers jazz essentially black folk music.
TH: That two such major American cultural figures emerged from one high school is nothing short of amazing. Talking with Green about his lifelong friend was like a college short course in Granz’s early life and intellectual development. It is rare enough to find contemporaries when chronicling the lives of people of advanced age. But Green was singular in being able to share his detailed experiences and observations and to interpret Granz on such an intimate level.
JW: How does Granz's exposure to New Deal arts and criticism affect his choices early on?
TH: We see it in Granz’s deep commitment to civil rights dating back to the beginning of his career in 1942. He was in communication with the NAACP and other civil rights organizations by mid-decade. Early on he also adopted confrontational direct action strategies that did not come into wider use by other civil rights activists until the ‘50s and ‘60s. Granz’s uniqueness among 20th century progressives cannot be overstated in upholding what was in the ‘40s a radical social agenda while finding a way to make it pay. [Pictured: Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet in the Houston police station following a racially motivated arrest in October 1955. Photo from the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, courtesy of Tad Hershorn]
JW: Granz seems like the type who held grudges. Did he?
TH: Yes. According to Virginia Wicks, his publicist in the ‘50s, he actually kept a grudge list. He forgave few slights, mistakes or breaches of integrity. Things were right or wrong. And he liked something or somebody—or he didn’t. One example is his attorney, who had negotiated the non-compete clause that MGM added that wound up keeping Granz out of the recording studio for seven years following the sale of Verve. Granz resented that clause and held his attorney partly responsible. Although he and his lawyer had had a friendly relationship over the years, the lawyer sadly concluded that an invisible wall had come between them that never lifted.
JW: What about musicians?
TH: He didn’t like Frank Sinatra, who had a special place in the hell of Granz’s deepest, most enduring animosity.
TH: The episode that apparently kicked off their animosity occurred in the late ‘50s, when Sinatra, according to Ella Fitzgerald’s pianist Lou Levy, had Granz removed from a television studio.
JW: What happened?
TH: Granz had suggested material that the two singers might perform together. Sinatra didn’t like that at all. Levy shared the story with another of Ella’s accompanists, Paul Smith, who later passed it along to Fitzgerald biographer, English jazz historian Stuart Nicholson.
JW: I don’t recall reading that in Nicholson’s book.
TH: When Granz saw the English edition of the book in 1994 with that story in there, he hit the roof. He threatened to sue Nicholson in Britain, where libel suits are far easier to prosecute than in the U.S., if Nicholson did not excise the story in the American edition, where it indeed did not appear.
JW: How did this animosity spill over into music?
TH: For one, it dashed Sinatra’s hopes of buying Verve in 1960. Sinatra was prepared to match any offer. His only condition was that Granz continue to oversee operations, which ran counter to Granz’s irrevocable choice to retire from the record business. Granz also balked at the prospect of regular dealings with Sinatra. So Granz unloaded Verve to MGM, while Sinatra established Reprise Records with the assistance of former Verve executive Mo Ostin, then on the threshold of an illustrious 50-year career at the top of the record industry.
JW: Did Granz and Sinatra clash again?
TH: The most rancid expression of Granz’s contempt for Sinatra came in the form of a 1975 letter that he wrote New York Times’ jazz critic John S. Wilson on the occasion of The Big Show. The blockbuster event teamed Sinatra and Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra at New York’s Uris Theater in September of that year.
JW: What was the issue?
TH: Wilson lamented in print that Basie band didn't receive enough playing time, which was a veiled barb at Sinatra. After returning to California following the show’s launch, Granz said in the letter that Sinatra had bullied Ella and Basie into accepting his programming changes. He also switched closing numbers with Fitzgerald, while trimming the band’s portion of the program. Granz knew that Ella and Basie were loath to make waves with Sinatra on such matters.
JW: It sounds like their feud was personal.
TH: Actually, much of Granz’s displeasure with Sinatra had to do with professional issues. Granz accused Sinatra of being a racist, pointing to remarks he had made onstage about Lena Horne when the Sinatra-Fitzgerald-Basie extravaganza first premiered in Las Vegas in 1974. As he wrote in his letter to John Wilson, “This arrogance carries over into his allotment of time to artists whose asses he couldn’t wipe today… I thought you might like some of the insights as to what really goes on backstage. I think it was a great insult to Basie that he wasn’t given a decent time to play.” This is from the John S. Wilson Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University.
JW: One wonders whether their animosity altered recording history.
TH: Oh, it did. Their revulsion for each other had profound consequences. By ultimately stymieing golden opportunities for Sinatra and Fitzgerald, the two premier singers of the '50s did not record together, though they did appear on stage together quite a bit. Both Granz and Sinatra had formidable power within their realms. But Sinatra’s unique and unprecedented level of fame, alloyed with that power, trumped anything Granz could muster in their few but memorable skirmishes. [Photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Norman Granz in 1964 by Roberto Polillo]
JW: What was Granz’s relationship like with Duke Ellington?
TH: Granz made it clear on several occasions that he had a greater love for Duke Ellington’s music than for the man himself. And the feeling was mutual. That said, Granz made important contributions to the bandleader’s success when he toured the band to Europe in 1958 and again the following year. He also brokered Ellington’s break into scoring major motion pictures with Anatomy of a Murder and Paris Blues. Their dealings, which notably included Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book, continued well into the late '60s, when the two men had a bitter falling out. [Photo of Norman Granz making a point to Duke Ellington during one of the tours promoted by Granz in the late '50s, courtesy of Tad Hershorn]
JW: Did they ever patch things up?
TH: Their relationship healed toward the end of Ellington’s life in 1974. Ellington had made two recordings for Granz, and Granz posthumously issued a handful of earlier performances from the bandleader’s vault for his last label, Pablo Records. They last saw one another a couple of days before Ellington’s death from cancer at a New York hospital. Granz also was among the first people Ellington’s sister Ruth Ellington Boatwright reached out to with news that Duke had died.
JW: And yet Granz had enormous respect for Ellington’s art.
TH: One of Granz’s lesser known gifts to Duke was managing the band from time to time for free in what Granz saw as a service to jazz. Granz also prodded Ellington to overcome his fear of flying. This would allow the band to bypass time-consuming modes of transportation, book more dates, and exponentially boost income. According to Clark Terry, Ellington was an immediate convert to air travel after what for him was a terrifying flight into West Berlin.
JW: What happened?
TH: Duke worked over a set of worry beads when he saw the pilot walking down the aisle. Only later did he learn that the plane was on automatic pilot.
Tomorrow, Tad takes rapid-fire questions, and we talk about Granz's impact on the American Songbook.
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: Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang together numerous times. In almost each case on-camera, Sinatra seems slightly intimidated by Fitzgerald's vocal power and dexterity, not to mention her licorice-smooth intonation. One can only assume Sinatra rightfully feared having his voice, as fine as it was, compared with hers, back to back. Among their many encounters, this one is my favorite (apologies that the clip is slightly out of sync)...