In April 1949, Mercury Records announced that it was soon to release a $25 jazz album made up of six 12-inch 78-rpm records, together with thirty-two 12 x 12 in. photos of top jazz stars taken by Life photographer Gjon Milli. They confirmed that material for this project had been in preparation for the last three years by Norman Granz. Granz having started the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series in 1944 had become a record producer and was heading up Mercury’s jazz division as well as issuing records under his own label Clef, through Mercury.
This is without question one of the most important albums to be issued in the 78-rpm album era, and it arguably created a template for much that followed in the recording industry, from LP box sets to the deluxe editions of today with books, CDs and all kinds of other attractive ephemeral assets that appeal to the collector. Granz and Mercury planned to limit the output to just 5,000 numbered limited editions.
Soon, in those days, was nine months away. The release of The Jazz Scene, as this package was called, was in the week before Christmas 1949 and just as today the first question the music press was asking was, ‘Is it worth it?’ Billboard emphatically declared ‘Mercury unveils “Jazz Scene” – $25, But It’s Worth It’. The reason that it took so long to appear is that its production was being underwritten in ‘pre-sales’. The appeal of the photos and the unbreakable discs, along with Granz’s own notes and biographies of the artists really did make this a working template.
‘The entire production is out of the top drawer in taste and conception. It leans towards the modern, both in the Milli-conceived photography and the Granz-supervised Wax.’ – Billboard
‘I was just beginning and I didn’t have a lot of money, I wanted to do something that reflected what was going on in jazz at the time.’ – Norman Granz
Not everyone agreed that this was such a good idea; Neil Hefti’s publisher claimed his copyright had been infringed over the use of his tunes “Repetition” and “Rhumbacito”. Granz claimed that he had paid Hefti a flat fee to conduct the pieces and 2 cents royalties aside in recognition of him being the composer of the pieces and that Hefti had not mentioned he had pre-assigned the rights to his publisher, Castle Music. For a while, the courts and the press were kept busy with claim and counterclaim.
In 1954, following the parting of the ways of Clef and Mercury, The Jazz Scene was issued as a $10 double LP with a $5 subscription for a photo pack.
The Duke Ellington Sides – “Sono” and “Frustration” – arranged by Duke Ellington featuring Harry Carney (baritone saxophone), Billy Strayhorn (piano), Fred Guy (guitar), Oscar Pettiford (bass) Sonny Greer (drums) – Recorded 1949
The Neal Hefti Sides – “Repetition” and “Rhumbacito” – arranged and conducted by Neal Hefti featuring Bill Harris (trombone), Charlie Parker (alto saxophone on “Repetition”), Flip Phillips (tenor saxophone), Manny Albam (baritone saxophone), Shelly Manne (drums) – Recorded “Repetition” December 1947, and “Rhumbacito” autumn 1948
The Lester Young Side – “I Want To Be Happy” – Lester Young (tenor saxophone), Nat King Cole (piano), Buddy Rich (drums) – Recorded March–April 1946
The Coleman Hawkins Side – “Picasso” – Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone) – Recorded 1948
The Ralph Burns Side – “Introspection” – arranged by Ralph Burns featuring Sonny Berman (trumpet), Bill Harris, Lucky Thompson (tenor saxophone) and a large orchestra – Recorded October 1946
The George Handy Side – “The Bloos” – arranged by George Handy featuring Sonny Berman (trumpet), Bill Harris, Lucky Thompson (tenor saxophone) and a full orchestra – Recorded November 1947
The Charlie Parker Side – “The Bird” – Charlie Parker (alto saxophone), Hank Jones (piano) Ray Brown (bass), Shelly Manne (drums) – Recorded 10 February, 1949
The Willie Smith Side – “Sophisticated Lady” – Willie Smith (alto saxophone), Dodo Marmarosa (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Red Callender (bass), Jo Jones (drums) – Recorded November 1947
The Machito Side – “Tanga” – arranged and conducted by Machito with his orchestra, including Flip Phillips (tenor saxophone) – Recorded January 1949
The Bud Powell Side – “Cherokee” – Bud Powell (piano), Ray Brown (Bass) Max Roach (drums) – Recorded February 1949
‘Coleman Hawkins took so seriously what he was doing that we originally did “Round Midnight”, but he didn’t like it and came back three or four months later and did an adlib piece we called “Picasso”.’– Norman Granz
For The Jazz Scene Granz had wanted to record Charlie Parker and Art Tatum, but Tatum never showed and so they rang around New York and got Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Shelly Manne to come down to Carnegie Hall, which Granz had hired for the recording because he liked the acoustics.
We’ve put together as best we can the sides from the package as it is long since out of print. Sadly we could not find Rhumbacito on Spotify. Every side is worth listening to, but the Hawk’s side, ‘Picasso’ is outstanding, as is Bird and ‘The Bird’. It’s hard not to be beguiled by Pres, and Willie Smith; equally the Ellington sides with Harry Carney on top form are fabulous.
This is classic jazz played by some of the greatest musicians that was marketed in a unique and innovative way, years ahead of its time.