Like the late Steve Jobs, Norman Granz was someone who loved exceptionally creative people and helped make technology accessible to millions of consumers. In the case of Granz, that technology was jazz ablums. In Tad Hershorn's Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press), we learn things about Granz we didn't know before. Among them are revelations that Granz had a strong leftist background, that he took big risks as a major advocate for civil rights in the early 1940s, that he was one of jazz's biggest champions who had a national vision for its popularity, that he was a shrewd businessman who fully understood the record industry and the mass market, and he knew how to turn great musicians into stars through buzz, synergistic tours and monumental recordings. Rock 'n' roll would use Granz's package-tour approach throughout the '50s with great success. [Photo at top of Ella Fitzgerald and Norman Grantz at the Hollywod Bowl in August 1973 by Paul Slaughter]
In Part 4 of my conversation with Tad, the author and archivist talks about Granz's business smarts and his passion for the American Songbook...
JazzWax: Granz in 1947 became head of Mercury’s jazz division. Why?
Tad Hershorn: By aligning himself with Mercury, Granz was able to use their studios and staff, and develop his recording chops with the understanding that the master recordings he made belonged solely to him. His deal stipulated that he was free to walk with the masters when he decided to leave Mercury and start his own company.
JW: Why was this a sticking point with Granz?
TH: Early on, Granz was associated with record producer Moe Asch, who was responsible for releasing some early volumes of Jazz at the Philharmonic and a few other Granz recordings. But when Asch filed for bankruptcy, those recordings were forever out of Granz's reach, since they were attached to Asch’s financial settlement. Granz vowed that would not happen again.
JW: What was the purpose of Granz’s many labels?
TH: Granz's first label was the Clef series on Mercury beginning in 1948. This arrangement continued until the end of the agreement in 1953, when he established the independent Clef Records label. A year later, he founded Norgran Records, which he said helped solve distribution problems that arose when so many records were issued on the Clef label. He then folded both labels, along with Lu Watters' traditional Down Home Records, into Verve Records at the beginning of 1956 after acquiring Ella Fitzgerald's recording contract.
JW: What is Granz's role in reviving and aggrandizing the American Songbook?
TH: He played a huge role in giving these songs a hugely prestigious and honored position in our culture. Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook albums remain healthy and steady sellers and evidence of this enduring legacy. But Granz was just one of many important factors in the ‘50s that elevated traditional Tin Pan Alley songs. The decade had been defined by the success of Frank Sinatra in the late ‘40s. His success brought singers to the forefront and further demoted bands from their dominant perch during the swing era. [Photo of the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe passing the time on a train platform on a snowy day in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1947, courtesy Hank O’Neal]
JW: What about the rise of the 12-inch album in the mid-'50s.
TH: Yes, of course. The LP made its mark by providing a new platform for the vocal. The era also was characterized by superb arrangers groomed in the big bands, most notably Nelson Riddle. His arrangements propelled the career of Nat Cole, all but saved Sinatra’s and, later, assisted Fitzgerald and Granz in finishing the songbook albums and many other projects in the years that followed. [Photo of a November 1953 reception for JATP in Tokyo, which included being driven through the streets in open convertibles, courtesy of the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University]
JW: Granz’s approach, of course, was a bit different than Capitol’s.
TH: The albums Sinatra recorded for Capitol in 1954, as well as Fitzgerald’s songbooks beginning with Cole Porter two years later, point to two different approaches in enhancing the status of what came to be known as standards. Sinatra accomplished this with mood albums incorporating his proven technical mastery at its peak and a singing style forged by the dramas of his larger-than-life romp through American life. [Photo of Norman Granz and Oscar Peterson posing at the base of the Russian War Memorial in East Berlin in the '50s, courtesy of Hank O’Neal]
JW: And Fitzgerald?
TH: She bathed the standards with her near-perfect voice, relatively straight readings and exquisite diction. All three combined to render encyclopedic collections of both the most famous as well as lesser-known works, many of which gained new currency because of their inclusion in her songbooks. Of course, developing albums for Ella with a single songwriter's compositions in mind wasn't a Granz invention. Decca in 1950 recorded and released Ella Sings Gershwin, her first 10-inch LP. Granz, however, formalized the model.
JW: What was most startling about Granz's oversight of the songbook project?
TH: That he had pressured an initially resistant Fitzgerald to learn all the verses of the songs, which he rightly believed added authenticity and a level of authority over the material. Her command over the work sustained her for the remainder of her 56-year career.
JW: And yet these standards were being recorded just as new teen music was being written for early rock and rollers.
TH: John McDonough’s comments in Down Beat when Fitzgerald died in 1996 sums this up:
“[Just as Fitzgerald began recording the songbooks in 1956], the barbarians were already at the gate… The [Elvis] Presley phenomenon and the rock ’n roll revolution that issued from it would signal the collapse of the composer’s place in American popular music. That it should happen precisely at the moment Miss Fitzgerald offered a new perspective on its appreciation and demonstrated that their work could be treated in a definitive manner as a body of literary work seems an astonishing irony. The songbook project would become an unexpected and historic elegy to a vanishing age of literacy, intelligence and elitism in American music.” [Photo of Elvis Presley in 1956]
JW: Where do you suppose Granz's fealty for standards comes from?
TH: Granz saw George Gershwin in person 10 months before his death on July 11, 1937. Granz was a UCLA student at the time and on campus when it was announced that Gershwin would perform the school’s new fight song in the gymnasium. Granz was in the audience when Gershwin reworked a version of a previous hit as Strike Up the Band for UCLA. This reference showed up in transcripts of taped conversations between Granz and his wife Grete [pronounced Greta] in 2000 and was confirmed by a brief item in the Los Angeles Times.
JW: Granz knew Ira Gershwin, yes?
TH: Yes. Granz’s friendship with Ira Gershwin actually preceded the recording of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book. Ira Gershwin was the lyricist for many of his brother’s classic melodies and was the only honoree besides Duke Ellington whom Granz invited to participate in the songbook project for fear of undue interference.
JW: What did Gershwin do for the Fitzgerald date?
TH: He made some slight adaptations of lyrics. Granz and Gershwin's friendship was long-lasting. In 1959, Ira Gershwin presented Granz with two self-portraits and three self-portraits of his brother, along with an early lead sheet of It Ain’t Necessarily So in George’s hand as well as additional sketches.
JW: By the way, what happened to Granz’s art collection?
TH: Granz sold off a sizable part of the collection built up during the ‘60s at a Sotheby’s auction in London on April 23, 1968. The Picasso portion of the auction, one of the first blockbuster events of its type, was telecast live on the BBC. The magnitude of the sale in sheer numbers, along with another that same month in New York, allowed art dealers to establish prices of the work of several major modernists. Granz retreated more and more to his dealings and contacts within the world of art as his active involvement in jazz waned.
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 tonight, 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 one of my favorite tracks from Ella Fitzgerald's Gershwin songbook album...