Norman Granz played perhaps the single biggest role in the spread of small-group jazz in the years following World War II. As a concert promoter and record company founder, Granz had tireless drive, an undiminished passion for the music and musicians, and a buzzsaw personality that came in handy along the way. Yet little is known about what made him tick or how he managed to promote bebop's popularity and legitimize the American Songbook.
Until now, that is. Tad Hershorn's just-published book, Norman Granz: the Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press), provides an in-depth and analytic look at the impresario. Tad is an archivist at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and over the years had extensive access to Granz and those who knew him best. (Full disclosure: the University of California Press is also publishing my book on jazz in the fall 2012.)
In Part 1 of my multi-part conversation with Tad, he reflects on Granz's flinty personality, how Jazz at the Philharmonic got its name, and Granz's role as bebop's early champion:
JazzWax: Was Norman Granz a cranky guy?
Tad Hershorn: Granz’s feistiness was an open, non-secret from the beginning of his career. A copy of Jazz at the Philharmonic, Volume I in Granz’s personal collection is signed by most of the musicians featured, including a sketch of Granz by David Stone Martin [pictured]. Martin added the following inscription: “For Norman Granz, whose criticism can be heard—without a mike.” Granz lived up every bit to his legendary, consistent crankiness and irascibility.
JW: How did you find him during your interviews?
TH: Dealing with him by phone for over five years leading up to four face-to-face meetings—including his last interviews in Geneva in May 2001—was always touch and go, just more intense in person.
JW: How so?
TH: I’ve come to look at it this way: The only thing we all share in common is time. Great men with energy and large purpose like Granz employ proven ways of continuously clearing debris between them and their objectives. His brusqueness was one way he took command of a situation to expedite things. His temper and fearlessness allowed him to cut to the chase—whether he was negotiating contracts or facing down racist detectives.
JW: What was behind it?
TH: Granz did not suffer fools or even the well intended and well informed. I first met him in March 1980 at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas, my hometown. Ella Fitzgerald was appearing there for two weeks. I had photographed his artists during the years his Pablo label was in operation and offered my images for free in exchange for his records. Four cases of Pablo Records ended up on my doorstep within two weeks. To complete the bargain, we arranged that I would call Granz from the lobby of his hotel at 10:30 a.m. to show him the images.
JW: What happened?
TH: I called him at 10:25. He answered and said, “You’re early. I’m on the phone to Europe, and I have more important things to do than come down and look at your pictures. I’ll be down in 10 minutes.”
JW: What happened when Granz came down?
TH: He began perusing my book of photos as if they were blank pages. “You know,” he said, “my records are so esoteric that people would buy them even if they were in grocery bags.” Despite his initial remarks, Granz did use some of my photos for covers, beginning with the back cover photo of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Carlos Jobim Song Book, a photo that was also used as Ella's standard PR photo in the eighties. Other photos for covers included A Classy Pair: Ella and Basie, Easy Living (Ella and Joe Pass), Basie and Friends and Fancy Pants, Basie's last album, 1986.
JW: Was Granz always so sweet at first?
TH: Twenty-one years later, we met at his apartment. It was appropriately named “House of Picasso” for its 30 drawings and a sculpture by the master. As I fumbled through my two identical black bags for a fresh tape to record him, Granz said in his chilly, flat tone, “You’re probably smarter than you present yourself.” [Photo of Norman Granz in front of Picasso's drawing of Ella Fitzgerald by Tad Hershorn]
JW: Ultimately, how did you two get along?
TH: Granz and I never bonded. Although that would have been a fitting and desired end from my perspective, it was not necessary for me to chronicle his life. He was one of my heroes—then and now.
JW: And yet Granz was pretty generous.
TH: He was. He could be generous in both what he said and did. Granz frequently and quietly provided financial gifts to many musicians whose fortunes had slipped or were suffering from illnesses. He did this quietly to avoid calling attention to himself or compromising the dignity of the musicians.
JW: But from a jazz perspective, what exactly irritated Granz so consistently?
TH: He felt that America was behind the curve in honoring its major cultural contributors. That tone spilled over, and he could be provocatively rude to those he did not consider to be his equal. His temper might also have been a defense mechanism to hide a less visible and unexpected trait—shyness. That shyness extended to avoiding direct displays of affection, such as when the JATP troupe once threw him a surprise birthday party or when Oscar Peterson’s wife Kelly embraced him backstage at a concert.
JW: What was his vision for Jazz at the Philharmonic?
TH: The name actually was a last-minute edit by a printer, who changed the original “Jazz Concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium” to "Jazz at the Philharmonic" to better fit the space on flyers and posters for the first concert on July 2, 1944.
JW: Was Granz angry?
TH: No. He immediately saw the change for what it was—a sleeker, more elegant and tradeable name for his enterprise. But officials at Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Auditorium were displeased. They saw it as implying a direct affiliation with them and wanted the name changed. They had already pressured the independent Los Angeles record label Philo to change its name, which it did—to Aladdin.
JW: What did Granz do?
TH: He at first tried to placate them by calling the events “Norman Granz Jazz Concerts” and other off-brand names. But even that could not put to rest their hidden objections to integrated seating, interracial couples and raucous audiences that greeted the fiery jam-session concerts.
JW: What happened?
TH: Granz’s concert series finally got the boot by the Philharmonic Auditorium in January 1946, after he hosted the West Coast Down Beat awards concert that featured Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other top-flight jazz musicians. That was all too much for the Auditorium. So he had to stage the concerts elsewhere, continuing to call them “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” which was generic since he was no longer affiliated with the Auditorium. It’s just one example of Granz absorbing an idea he encountered by chance. [Photo courtesy of Tad Hershorn]
JW: His ability to flip an idea successfully also can be said about the live JATP recordings, yes?
TH: Absolutely. The first concert was a fund-raiser for the defendants in the notorious ethnically charged Sleepy Lagoon murder case in Los Angeles. Given the thunderous, sold-out endorsement of his jam session concerts, Granz staged another at the end of July—this time, strictly commercial. He cobbled together tours up and down the coast of California through the end of the year. The next year Granz inaugurated annual tours, following up these with spring and fall seasons from 1947 until 1950 before conquering the European market and beyond beginning in 1952.
JW: What about the live recordings?
TH: Granz saw the recordings as documents of the event—clinkers, crowd noises and all. The public thought so, too. Jazz at the Philharmonic, Volume I was one of the first commercially issued live concert recordings in 1945. It sold about 150,000 copies upon release. Succeeding volumes of JATP concert records created a new model for publicizing concerts and jazz stars, which in turn sold more records. Oscar Peterson appropriately said in an interview for my book that “Jazz at the Philharmonic was like having your record collection come to town.”
JW: Granz was really the first post-war jazz entrepreneur, wasn’t he?
TH: Granz’s projects may not have always resulted from forethought, but his instincts for acting on a good idea when it landed on his doorstep were near faultless.
JW: Does Granz play a critical role in the rise of bebop in the late 40s?
TH: Unquestionably, Granz was a significant factor in the spread of bebop. But Granz carved out his role as a popularizer rather than an innovator, a title that better suited people like record producers Ross Russell of Dial and Teddy Reig of Savoy.
JW: How did he popularize bop?
TH: One of the less apparent hallmarks of Jazz at the Philharmonic was putting the best swing and bop era musicians together on one stage, a nearly inconceivable idea at the time given the polarization of the two different fan bases.
JW: For example?
TH: One of my favorite recorded examples of this was from an April 22, 1946 concert at the Embassy Theater in Los Angeles. Following solos on I Got Rhythm by alto saxophonist Willie Smith and trumpeter Buck Clayton, the three reigning saxophonists of the day—Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Lester Young—implicitly state jazz’s past and future in the course of one tune. And who else but Norman Granz would have presented Parker in Salt Lake City, in 1948? The JATP tours brought Charlie Parker to the rest of country. At the time Parker was a musician who was almost comparable in his influence with Louis Armstrong but up until then had been known only as an East Coast myth.
JW: What was the initial reception to Granz’s recording of Charlie Parker?
TH: They were actually among his most controversial, given the saxophonist’s meteoric recordings on Dial and Savoy. Granz conceded in a 1966 interview that Parker’s earlier recordings for those labels, when Parker was at the height of his innovation—like those of Lester Young and Billie Holiday's—were unquestionably more significant. However, Granz took great pride in providing Parker and other top jazz musicians with steady work in later years, which helped keep their troubled lives and careers on track.
JW: Granz also appreciated and adored Dizzy Gillespie, yes?
TH: Absolutely. Granz hailed Gillespie’s accomplishments in defining bop and Afro-Cuban jazz along with his decades-long global career. Granz actually believed that Gillespie was more significant than Parker. He thought Gillespie remained underrated even at the time of his death in 2001.
JW: So was Granz a bebopper?
TH: Granz’s musical values were essentially formed by the swing era. The format offered by Jazz at the Philharmonic and the concert recordings, focusing on instrumental virtuosity, provided bop with huge audiences throughout the country in the music’s heyday. The new music prospered in part by Granz featuring it alongside elements of swing. And he often featured concert segments that were dedicated exclusively to bop.
Tomorrow, Tad talks about Granz's vision, his move from Los Angeles to New York, and his role in legitimizing the American Songbook through jazz recordings.
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 be talking about his book and playing audio and video clips of Norman Granz. For more information, go here.
JazzWax clip: Here's I Got Rhythm, one of Tad Hershorn's favorite Jazz at the Philharmonic tracks, from April 22, 1946...