Norman Granz is one of the most important names in the music business that you’ve likely never heard of. Granz’s story is similar to that of so many people who worked in the music and entertainment industry that blossomed between the wars. He, like many of his contemporaries, was keen to embrace the bright new future offered by the music business. What made him unique, however, was his sense of justice, fairness, and equality, and – of course – his incredible passion for jazz.
As the last major German offensive on the Western Front was coming to its close on August 6, 1918, two Russian Jewish immigrants who had arrived in the United States separately, moved to Los Angeles, met and married, were having their first son. They named him Norman.
Norman’s father, Morris, worked in the clothing business, and the devout Hebrew family lived in an integrated area of Los Angeles, close to Central Avenue. Norman’s first language was Yiddish. It was only once he had gone to school that he learned to speak English.
The family had moved south from Los Angeles to Long Beach because Morris managed a department store. Norman received his first insight into America’s racial tensions while living in Long Beach – he watched the Ku Klux Klan marching through the streets of the city.
Around the time Norman graduated from junior high in 1932, the family moved to Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of Downtown Los Angeles, after the store in which Morris worked closed during the Depression. On returning to Los Angeles, Morris Granz found work as an itinerant clothing salesman, but by all accounts, his career never really got out of first gear.
Norman enrolled in the Theodore Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, and among his contemporaries was Herb Klein, who would become Richard Nixon’s Director of Communications, and Archie Green (formerly Greenstein), another son of Russian immigrants who, although born in Canada, became one of America’s foremost folklorists. Norman was tall, sporty, a very good tennis player, and was soon introduced to more serious matters by his friend Archie who encouraged him to read political magazines, in particular, The New Republic, a publication with an agenda that focused on the serfdom of inequality. While most people tend to become less radical as they get older, for Granz this was not the case.
Granz worked in a clothing store on Saturdays while still in high school, and continued to flirt with politics, showing signs of embracing Communism, something he did more fully later when he joined the musicians’ branch of the Los Angeles Communist Party. Prior to the war, he had the view that a socialist world offered people far greater hope. In 1935, Granz graduated from high school and almost immediately started work in the Los Angeles Stock Exchange with a view to entering UCLA in 1936 – he was there for two years before dropping out.
An introduction to jazz
Granz’s interest in music and passion for jazz, in particular, came as a result of a recording session on October 11, 1939 in a studio in New York City, in which Coleman Hawkins and his Orchestra put down four titles. The tenor saxophonist had only just returned from many years in Europe and among the sides he recorded was “Body and Soul.” Shortly after it was released, it made it onto the Billboard bestsellers list on January 27, 1940. According to Granz, many years later, “I heard ‘Body and Soul’! That introduced me to real jazz.”
At that point in time, white and black people, by and large, went to see different bands and enjoyed a very different kind of entertainment. Central Avenue in central Los Angeles had since 1920 been the epicenter of the black community in the city, with jazz at its heart. According to Wynton Marsalis, “Central Avenue was the 52nd Street of Los Angeles.” Granz knew the clubs in the area well, and it was his growing interest in jazz that drew him to the night spots which certainly had many less white customers than black. Granz was also listening to jazz on the radio in an era when nightly shows were broadcast from clubs in Chicago and New York. The idea was starting to form in Granz’s mind: What if people were able to go and listen to jazz in surroundings that did justice to the music?
Granz had a second, year-long spell at UCLA that ended in the early summer of 1941, however it did not earn Granz a degree. He left without earning the necessary credits, and quickly volunteered for the Army Air Corps in the summer of 1941 as it became clear that the United States was potentially going to enter the war.
His entrée into Los Angeles jazz circles
One musician who did impress Granz around this time was Lester Young, who had moved to Los Angeles and was appearing with his brother Lee’s band at the Capri nightspot. Granz also met Nat King Cole and, almost immediately, the two men became close friends. Cole was Granz’s entrée into Los Angeles jazz circles, whether those of resident musicians or visiting ones. Through Cole he met both Count Basie and Art Tatum, two more musicians who would play a significant part in his future.
Granz saw Duke Ellington’s band at the Apex, next to the Dunar Hotel on Central Avenue where the band stayed. It was, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the gathering spot for the crème de la crème of black society, the hotel for performers who could entertain in white hotels but not sleep in them.” He also met Billie Holiday, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and singer Anita O’Day in short order. These musicians – and just about every other artist he encountered around this time – would eventually play a significant part in his professional life.
Meanwhile, Granz failed his flight test, so he left the Army Air Corps at the start of 1942. He immediately took a bus across the country to visit New York City and especially 52nd Street – the hottest place to see the best jazz in the United States. He stayed for several months, getting some temporary work on Wall Street and hanging out with musicians, especially Roy Eldridge, the man nicknamed “Little Jazz,” who would remain one of Granz’s closest musician friends. (He also met Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges on this trip.)
By the early summer of 1942 Granz was organizing Sunday afternoon jam sessions at the Trouville on Beverly and Fairfax, a club owned by Billy Berg. Among the hurdles Berg and Granz had to overcome was working out a deal between the local black and white musician’s union branches. Once they had ironed things out, the sessions featuring Lee and Lester Young, and Nat King Cole’s Trio became a resounding success.
Everything came to a halt
For a number of weeks they went ahead with members of whichever band was in town, along with local musicians. Cole was virtually the house pianist and many more of the artists who wound up recording the Clef, Norgran and Verve labels played these sessions. Most notable of all was the fact that the sessions were completely integrated. A month after the first jam session, Norman Granz supervised the first of what would be many thousands of recording sessions, although this one, featuring Lee and Lester Young was really meant to be a private affair. They cut “Indiana,” “Body And Soul,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Tea For Two.” Nat King Cole played piano – they are simply sublime recordings. However, in August 1942 when Granz was drafted, everything came to a halt.
Nonetheless, jam sessions were started at a number of different clubs, especially Monday nights at the 331 Club where Nat King Cole’s Trio was the house band and Billy Berg’s Swing Club on Tuesdays. Shortly after Granz’s discharge from the army, Cole was signed to Capitol Records and had his first hit in December 1943 with “All For You.”
It was around this time that Granz also became ever more radical in his views on race, and began to believe that music had a part to play in breaking down the walls of segregation. By October, Granz was featuring white musicians playing with black musicians and these more high-profile gigs were attracting attention from the bosses of the non-integrated black and white musician’s unions.
By 1944, Granz was looking to upscale his club jam sessions. The result took shape in Music Town, a small hall on Jefferson and Normandie, close to the University of Southern California. By staging these concerts in a hall – albeit not a very big one – with seating and lighting, Granz was attempting to take jazz out of the dimly lit, smoke-filled clubs into a very different arena. Music Town could hold no more than 200 people and the first session in February featured Illinois Jacquet, Barney Kessel on guitar, and J. C. Heard on drums along with the ever-present Nat King Cole. Key to Granz’s plans for presenting jazz in a new and innovative way was the fact that he paid the musicians at ‘scale’ – the accepted rate for a three-hour session being $11. Despite the place being full and the audience paying a dollar a head to get in, Granz still lost money.
By July 2, 1944, things were back on track, but on a much larger scale. Granz had hired the Philharmonic Auditorium, the traditional home of symphony concerts, to stage a jazz concert. On West 5th Street and Olive Street, it was opened in 1906 as the Temple Auditorium with a production of Aida, becoming the Philharmonic Auditorium in 1920 when the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra made it their home. For Granz’s concert, according to DownBeat, “kids went wild over screaming high notes produced by Illinois Jacquet’s tenor sax. They squirmed with glee as guitarist Les Paul produced novelty sound effects.” The concert was in aid of The Sleepy Lagoon Defense League, a fighting fund for the twenty-four alleged gang members who had taken part in the ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ of 1943, a fact that attracted some high-profile media coverage.
Jazz at the Philharmonic
The second Jazz at the Philharmonic concert followed on July 30 and before the year was out there were two more. There were regular concerts throughout 1945 and a final concert took place in January 1946. While these concerts were going on, Granz also organized a short tour for the JATP. What made these shows special was the diversity of players. By welcoming musicians that were stylistically at odds, Granz ignored the jazz wars that were raging at the time. He gave no heed to traditionalists versus swing versus the be-boppers. In so doing, he helped jazz move to a place where these labels became less important.
In the spring of 1946, a more ambitious tour was organized, and among those participating was Charlie Parker, who had already performed at the Philharmonic, despite some erratic behavior brought on by his heroin addiction. Others who joined the spring tour that included a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York City were Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan and the stride pianist, Meade Lux Lewis.
The exposure that the JATP was getting increased as some of the shows were broadcast on the radio. But also central to Granz’s strategy was the way he promoted his concerts. He left nothing to chance; there were radio ads, newspaper ads, billboards, and press releases extolling the virtue of the JATP. It is fair to say that Norman Granz did much to pioneer the business of modern music touring. What we now take for granted when an artist or band tours may not have been solely down to Granz, but his operation had a level of refinement that few others achieved.
Granz’s masterstroke was to record the concerts. He was also beginning to produce other artists in the studio on a freelance basis for some Los Angeles record labels. It was all part of the twenty-six-year-old Norman Granz learning the craft that would change the face of jazz in the United States and, ultimately, the world.
His first record label
In June 1947, Granz founded Clef Records. His first record label was initially an imprint within Mercury Records, which was itself only a couple of years old. Clef began releasing 78-rpm records of more recent JATP concerts, among them the unofficial anthem of JATP, “How High The Moon,” plus “JATP Blues” and “Perdido.” Most important of all, Granz retained ownership of the JATP recordings; they did not belong to Mercury, which meant that wherever he had a label deal he could release the recordings, something that proved lucrative when he set up Verve Records in 1956.
Besides his approach on matters of race, Granz was feisty in his dealings with just about everyone. This included Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday’s manager and agent. Granz wanted to stage a Carnegie Hall concert in November 1947 as a benefit show for Billie, who was serving a jail sentence on narcotics charges at the time. Glaser flatly refused, saying she didn’t need the money. Threats were issued between the two men, and eventually the concert became a fundraiser for the NAACP – The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Ella Fitzgerald joined the JATP in February 1949 at Carnegie Hall, marking the beginning of her decades-long involvement with Norman Granz, a relationship that was not always easy, but one that certainly benefited both of them, professionally and financially. During the latter part of the year, Oscar Peterson entered Granz’s life – he and Ella became two of the biggest draws at the JATP concerts. On the recording front, in 1949 Mercury began issuing JATP recordings on long-playing records.
Taking jazz to the world
In 1950, Granz’s strategy for bringing jazz to the rest of the world took a transatlantic leap forward when he began plotting to take the JATP to Europe. Getting Ella on the JATP was easy compared with Granz’s desire to assume control of her recording contract. Ella had been with Decca Records since her days with Chick Webb and his Orchestra, and while Granz felt that their recording choices were not always best for her, they, like other record companies, wanted hit records. There was no denying that Ella’s days of big hit singles were far behind her by 1950. Nonetheless, Granz wanted to sign Ella to his label, but his efforts were thwarted by her long-time manager Moe Gale who had power of attorney over Ella’s recording deal and re-signed her to Decca in October 1951 for a further five years. Granz was in for a long wait.
It was in 1950 that Granz released his 78-rpm limited-edition album entitled The Jazz Scene. It was a remarkable idea that he retailed at $25; every one was numbered, and it included beautiful photography by Gjon Mili. It was an innovation way ahead of its time, given that today limited-edition box sets are the norm for record companies.
Spring 1951 was when JATP was supposed to hit Europe. However, due to arguments regarding the musicians’ fees, the tour failed to take place. Europe had to wait a whole year before the JATP arrived. When it did eventually happen, the tour opened in Stockholm, before playing cities like Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Malmö, Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich, Lausanne, Brussels and The Hague. There were no dates in the UK, as the Musician’s Union would not sanction a charity performance.
By 1953 the long-playing record was becoming ubiquitous, particularly in the United States, and Granz seemed more comfortable with it as a medium for his jazz message than many other producers. The fact that many of the jam sessions went on way longer than the average length of a side of a 78-rpm record meant that only now could record buyers hear them in their uninterrupted glory. Besides issuing JATP records on Clef, Granz recorded – among others – Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Teddy Wilson, Buddy DeFranco, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Woody Herman, and Lionel Hampton – a virtual who’s who of jazz.
In November 1953, Granz took JATP to Japan, playing over 20 concerts in Tokyo and Osaka. Despite this being just eight years from the end of the war, the tour was embraced by audiences. Among those appearing were Ella Fitzgerald, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and the Gene Krupa Trio. The JATP finally played in London in 1953; the Musicians Union relented and they played a benefit concert for the victims of the terrible floods that had killed over 300 people.
Making a star
The following year, Granz finally became Ella Fitzgerald’s manager and it heralded the beginning of one of the most glittering body of work by any jazz artist – in part down to Granz’s astute judgment and canny handling of his star’s career. Granz also formed Norgran Records in the spring of 1954 with the label’s first albums coming from Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Buddy DeFranco, and Johnny Hodges, who had recently gone solo, having been with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for two decades. According to Granz: “Clef was too full of talent and was unable to handle the releases adequately.” To differentiate the two labels Granz said: “Clef was to handle jazz in the swing tradition, whereas Norgran was to handle the cooler crowd.”
As Ella’s manager, Granz’s first task was to extricate her from her Decca contract. His ideas as to how to record and present Ella varied very much from what Decca felt was the right way. In the end, according to Mo Ostin, who was Verve’s financial controller and who would later become one of the most powerful and well-respected figures in the music business: “Signing Ella was a fluke. Decca had recorded the soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story and among the musicians on it were Gene Krupa and Stan Getz, both of whom were under contract to Norman. He just forced them to give him Ella’s contract as Decca was desperate to put out the movie soundtrack.” Granz would have eventually secured her recording contract, but because of this maneuver, he got Ella eighteen months early.
The birth of Verve
With Ella’s contract secure, Granz decided there was only one thing to do. Start a new label to become the vehicle for her records. At the same time, he planned to fold his existing two labels into the new venture. Granz made the announcement that he was starting Verve on Christmas Eve 1955.
At the start of 1956, Granz began recording Ella in her first session away from Decca in 20 years. Their first visit to the studio was at the end of January when she did some sides that became singles. The following week, Ella was back in the studio with Buddy Bregman arranging and conducting, with Granz producing what was to become the template for the heart and soul of Ella’s Verve recordings – the Songbook Series. On February 7 at Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles, the same studio in which Frank Sinatra recorded all his classic albums, Ella recorded ten songs for what would become Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook. It is essential listening, a record that no jazz fan should be without.
Central to Granz’s strategy to turn Ella into a bigger star was to get her out of the clubs and into better venues. He moved her onto the hotel circuit, playing such prestigious dates as the Starlight Room of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria. This combined with Granz’s determined approach to her recording career earned him the reputation of a Svengali-like manager. It was justified, and so were the results. Not everyone appreciated what Granz did; certainly some performers – among them Mel Tormé who recorded for Verve – saw Granz as more dictator than Svengali, but even those who disliked him certainly could not argue with his success.
Before the year was out, Granz had also pulled off the masterstroke of recording Ella alongside Louis Armstrong in what have become some of the best-loved albums in the Verve catalogue. Ella And Louis (1956) and Ella And Louis Again (1957) along with Porgy And Bess (1957) – the first two with Oscar Peterson and the last one with Russ Garcia’s Orchestra – are jazz masterpieces.
In June 1956, Granz recorded Billie Holiday for the autobiographical album Lady Sings The Blues. In that year, there were over 100 sessions at which many hundreds of sides were recorded from a diverse range of artists that included Blossom Dearie, Sonny Stitt, Stuff Smith, Tal Farlow, Harry Edison, and, of course, Oscar Peterson. There were also sessions with non-jazz artists that included Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, The Ink Spots, and actress/singer Jane Powell. Verve was already on its way to becoming a powerhouse in the American recording industry, with judicious and lucrative overseas deals helping to spread the word.
Around this time, the FBI interviewed Granz about his alleged Communist past. While the McCarthy witch hunts had largely ended, the scourge of Communism was never far from America’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s mind at this time, and despite Granz’s clearly capitalist principles, the FBI were anxious to ensure that there was not a Red lurking among the jazz fraternity, which still had a reputation as a wayward world. Initially, the State Department withdrew Granz’s passport, but soon returned it after he sued them. For the rest of his life, the issues surrounding these incidents resonated with Granz.
The end of an era
Another significant change in Granz’s life was the cessation of JATP tours in the United States in 1957. Times had changed, not least because of George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival that had begun in 1954. It meant that the 18th national tour of JATP was the end of an era. However, it was still an unbelievable lineup of musicians, including Ella, Oscar, The Pres, The Hawk, and Stan Getz, but it also included trombone player J. J. Johnson and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
In 1959, Norman Granz moved to Lugano in Switzerland. His overseas JATP tours were still going strong and he could easily do his work from Europe. (His growing interest in art and European culture also drew him to Switzerland.)
A year earlier, Granz had begun working more closely with Duke Ellington and ended up managing him for most of the next decade. It was a pragmatic move on Ellington’s part; he needed to move his career along, as changing tastes in music were clear for all to see. Even Verve had signed a young rock ’n’ roll artist by the name of Ricky Nelson. (Although to be fair, this had nothing to do with Granz.)
Following his move to Switzerland, Granz began branching out in his concert work. He not only put together the JATP packages, but he also acted as the concert’s promoter in some instances. On the musical front, the death of both Lester Young and Billie Holiday signaled a change in the jazz landscape. Charlie Parker had also died in 1955, and it was clear that some of what Granz had been doing was built on his personal preferences. Some of the artists recording for Verve by the end of the decade were not to his liking – not that he ever turned down anyone who might make money for the company. For Granz, there was no dichotomy in making money and being principled. The money from the early concerts had helped develop the record labels, and cross-promotion between his two activities made complete sense. Meanwhile, Ella’s continuing journey through the Great American Songbook was proving a hit with record buyers and critics alike – a unique and rare synergy.
Saying goodbye to Verve
Then in 1960, at the height of his success, Norman Granz made what to some was a surprising decision. He decided to sell Verve Records. His reasons were exhaustion and a falling out of love with the record industry. Perhaps as a measure of the respect for Granz as a record executive, the deal with MGM Records stipulated that Granz could not record artists for seven years. The price for selling Verve was $2.5 million, which would be the equivalent of around £25 million today; significantly, Granz was the company’s sole owner.
Free of the day-to-day running of a record company, Granz concentrated on managing both Ella and Oscar Peterson and organizing the JATP European tours. Having made a lot of money from the sale, Granz was also free to pursue some of his interests away from music, especially art. In 1968, Granz met Pablo Picasso and eventually collected numerous works by the artist; he even named his home in Switzerland “The House of Picasso.” Then in 1972 Granz formed Pablo Records to release recordings by artists that he managed, including Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, as well as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan.
Five years earlier, Granz had put JATP back on the road in the United States with a 25 city tour headlined by Ella, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Zoot Simms, and Clark Terry. Throughout the intervening years, the JATP tours of Europe continued; these included a JATP concert in London that starred Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims, Benny Carter, Louis Bellson, Coleman Hawkins, and blues legend T-Bone Walker.
Aside from his interests in jazz and art, Granz was also fascinated by literature, especially the writer P. G. Woodhouse. Add to that a continuing love of tennis and a passion for food and wine, and the image of a real Renaissance man is clear for all to see. In his early fifties, Granz was as busy as ever – he also in 1974 married his third wife, Grete Lyngby, a Danish graphic artist. During much of the next decade, he recorded countless concerts at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which came out on Pablo Records. Granz also spent time in the United States, when the opportunity arose to make records with the artists he most admired.
Changed the way we listen to music
In 1987, Fantasy Records acquired Pablo and with it over 300 records, along with many previously unissued recordings of Granz’s. Following the sale of Pablo, Granz continued to manage both Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, but their careers were not as busy as they used to be. In 1995, Granz produced Improvisation, a film retrospective of many of the artists he had worked with; it includes unseen footage of Charlie Parker that he and Gjon Mili filmed in 1950. The following year Ella Fitzgerald died.
During his lifetime, Granz received few honors. He was offered a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1994, but in a characteristic gesture, he declined it, saying simply, “I think you guys are a little late.” Then in 1999, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Jazz at the Lincoln Center. Oscar Peterson accepted the award on Granz’s behalf.
Granz proved to be a campaigner to the end. In 1996 he sent a handwritten fax to President Clinton, complaining that, “For someone who professes to love jazz as much as you do, it’s sad that you didn’t name a jazz musician to your Arts Award; especially when Benny Carter the last of the giants of jazz who, at 88 years of age is still actively playing beautifully… All this talk of jazz being the only truly uniquely American art form apparently has gone right by you. Pity.” He never received a reply, but in 2000 Benny Carter won that medal. Granz never did get such an award.
On November 21, 2001, two years after his lifetime achievement award, Norman Granz died from cancer in Switzerland. He was unique, hard to get close to, hard for many people to like, but he single-handedly changed the way we listen to music, whether in a concert hall or on record. He was an original who cared for America’s one true art form, helping to make Verve the sound of America.