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Tad Hershorn: Norman Granz - The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice


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Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice

Tad Hershorn

Hardcover; 488 pages

ISBN: 9780520267824

University of California Press


That this is the first comprehensive biography on groundbreaking jazz impresario Norman Granz (1918-2001) says much about the man's private nature. Granz shied away from interviews and never introduced himself to audiences at the concerts he emceed. Granz emerges from Hershorn's pages as a hugely charismatic figure, though one who was, oddly, given his enormous success as a concert promoter and record producer, largely devoid of ego. Granz also comes across as an often abrasive man, yet one who was compassionate, intensely loyal to the musicians he so admired, and, ultimately, a man of unquestionable integrity.

The title of this book—from a Nat Hentoff Washington Post article in May 1994—encapsulates the driving force, and raison d'être, of a man who joined the Communist Party for its courageous stance on race relations. For Granz, jazz—music he loved passionately—was the logical medium with which to fight racial inequality. Nor was he jumping on a bandwagon, for as Hershorn underlines, Granz was at the vanguard of the post World War II civil rights movement.

The jam sessions Granz initiated at Billy Berg's L.A. club, Trouville, in early 1942—a precursor to the all-star jam sessions of the "Jazz at the Philharmonic"—was on the condition of a racially integrated audience. Granz's proposals, it seems, were always of the take it or leave it variety. The phenomenal success of the nightly jam sessions at Bergs, which featured top players of the day, enticed other clubs to follow Granz's lead. Two years later, Granz's first JATP production was, typically of the man, a fund raiser in the name of social justice, to defend Latinos in a high-profile murder case.

By the late 1940s—with JATP a coast-to-coast touring phenomenon—Granz turned down an estimated $100,000 in bookings from promoters who refused his contract stipulations for strictly non-segregated audiences. Little wonder that the black press was so supportive of Granz's concerts. Civil rights, then, is an essential part of the Granz story—he once sued a restaurant which refused to serve his black musicians—and Hershorn captures numerous first-hand accounts from musicians who laud Granz's tireless campaigning for racial equality.

Many also speak of his fairness in financial dealings. Pianist Oscar Peterson—whom Granz championed as a young unknown outside his native Canada—says of Granz: "His integrity, personally and musically, never wavered." Granz made Peterson and singer Ella Fitzgerald stars, insisted they be treated as such, and rewarded them handsomely. In fifty years of working together, neither Peterson nor Fitzgerald ever signed an official contract with Granz.

Granz is arguably better remembered for his contributions to the music. Jazz at the Philharmonic, described by Hershorn as "the most influential series of jazz concerts in the music's history," began as a celebration of swing, just as be-bop was surfacing. Hershorn portrays vividly the roaring juggernaut that was the JATP, succeeds in transmitting the excitement of the all-star performances, the passion of the crowds, and provides real insight into the Herculean efforts of Granz in organizing the incredibly successful tours. By 1953, the JATP tours, which would take in up to sixty US cities, had extended to Europe and Japan, and by Granz's reckoning the concerts that year grossed $600,000, playing to an estimated half a million jazz fans.

More significant, perhaps, was Granz's bringing together of the different generations of jazz—from swing to be-bop and beyond—in improvisational jam sessions. The JATP jams divided opinion, however, with more than one critic doubting the intrinsic musical value of cutting contests, epitomized by the battles between drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who enjoyed a fifty-year working relationship with Granz, was dismissive of the musical content of the JATP, declaring that "the real value of the JATP tours was the original 'first-class' treatment of jazz musicians." Granz was sensitive to criticism, vetting journalists beforehand to see if they were musically qualified to review his shows, and firing off letters of protest at what he considered unjust, or unqualified, criticism.

As a record producer, Granz also left an indelible mark with Verve and Pablo, and effectively pioneered live recordings. Few would argue with the author's statement that Granz produced "an unparalleled body of work." The esteemed journalist Hentoff, however, provoked Granz's ire for suggesting that the extensive Songbooks series did little to challenge Ella Fitzgerald's rare talent. On balance though, Granz's essential recordings of pianist Art Tatum, saxophonist Charlie Parker, singer Fred Astaire, band leaders Count Basie and Duke Ellington in small-band settings, guitarist Joe Pass and a long, long list of some of the most illustrious names in jazz, ensures his legacy as one of the most important producers in jazz history.

And as Hershorn points out, it was Granz's loyalty to what he saw as a sadly neglected generation of musicians—with whom he had enjoyed so many years with JATP—that led him to establish Pablo Records in 1973. For the next thirteen years, Granz produced records with little or no regard for their commercial viability, but because they were, in his mind, musically important.

Hershorn delivers a welcome and illuminating insight into one of jazz's greatest non-musicians, and without drum roll or fanfare, elegantly makes the case for Granz as a major cultural figure of the twentieth century.

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