Monday, June 15, 2009

Granz Scheme of Things

Yesterday I was idly wondering why I'd never seen a book about great Jazz impresario Norman Granz. The man was no shrinking violet, by any definition; instead he was firm and opinionated, a stubborn, in-your-face veteran of the concert/record wars for four decades, protective of his client artists, generous with the fees and salaries he paid them, quick to decry any signs of racism they encountered, determined on their behalf to accept nothing less than first-rate treatment. Industry people, meaning record company execs, rival producers, concert hall owners, critics, and even some fans, seemed to admire Granz and disparage him in equal measure. One imagines that he must have loved to be hated--at least, by those he deemed unworthy of respect.

So I checked the new/used on-line book sources (including the Abebooks data base of independent bookstores) and discovered one volume that piqued my curiosity sufficiently that I ordered a copy--Norman Granz: The White Moses of Black Jazz, published in 2003 by Urban Research Press. (With a worrisome $40 price tag, so I'm definitely hoping for the best.)

"White Moses"? Even those two words carry a whiff of controversy, suggesting Granz's Jewish heritage, and his out-front efforts at leading jazz musicians (especially black ones; the words seem to play off the Black Moses album by Isaac Hayes) into some holy land of prosperity and respect, and yet also implying that a white-knight "Stormin' Norman" was the only one who could make it all happen. Well, from 1943 through his retirement from active touring (1973) to his final withdrawal during the mid-1980s, the man did all that and more--producing and promoting, managing and demanding, creating and directing record companies, leading far-ranging international tours.

And it all grew out of his single idea--a fairly simple one, it would seem in retrospect, but he was the first and certainly the best at it--to stage concerts that allowed blacks and whites, musicians and fans alike, to sit down together and listen to exciting jazz created in a live, jam-session atmosphere. The first major event was held at L.A.'s Philharmonic Auditorium in 1944, and when the printer serendipitously omitted the last word of the venue's title, the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" name was born: first for concerts, then recordings capturing the excitement (and sometimes the clams) of live performances, then U.S. tours, and then "JATP" around the world, a landmark global phenomenon.

Along the way, he licensed 78s to labels owned by Moses Asch and, later, Mercury, and then in the early Fifties started his own labels: Clef, Norgran, shortlived Downhome Music for traditional jazz, Verve (begun as a vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald; he'd become her manager) with eventually hundreds of Long Play albums--great and not-so-great, but always historically significant, including major work by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane (live albums released years later) and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. (His fifth label, Pablo, was a latter-day effort, issuing scads of LPs--some fine recordings, yes, but many less compelling performances too, his stable of artists by then become as elderly as Granz himself.)

From the beginning, the Granz method on stage or in the studio was to bring together top "mainstream" jazzmen, make them comfortable, and then simply turn them loose to improvise with the tape running. This worked remarkedly well, often, but too many albums seemed scattered and loosey-goosey. (Were all those "Perdido/Mordido/Endido" jams anything more than raucous, excitable noise? Instead of solid jazz were they early precursors of rock 'n' roll, as some revisionists claim? Was Norman the Promoter prescient or just lucky?) Visual proof of the Granz system came in the ahead-of-its-time film Jammin' the Blues, produced in 1944 in conjunction with photographer Gjon Mili; and that was followed some years later by an unfinished and inadequately conceived sequal titled Improvisation, its pieces finally released a few years ago in a 2DVD set important mostly for footage of Charlie Parker and some Montreux performances led by Count Basie.

Even the packaging for his record releases became significant and collectable over the years--cover art by David Stone Martin for scores of albums; beautiful b&w and color photos by top lensmen like Herman Leonard and Phil Stern; and after Granz stopped writing his own brief and error-prone liner notes, scores of fine and elegant mini-essays by English jazz critic Benny Green.

While paying top dollar to his artists, Granz also managed to accumulate great wealth for himself; he made no bones about expecting to be well-compensated for all the hard work. Early on, he invested heavily in the varied art of Pablo Picasso, and he sold both Verve (in 1960) and Pablo (in 1987) for major millions. Between the works of art and all the jazz memorabilia accumulated, his home in Switzerland must have been a wonder.

As was the man--brusque and all-business, yet also charming and even witty when he chose to be; vain enough to hide his baldness with a comb-over/toupee, but also playful and canny enough to invent a non-existent, tongue-in-cheek, supposedly top-of-the-line "Muenster-Dummel Hi-Fi Recording" system (the words appeared on early Clef/Norgran labels); and most important, making great jazz happen for half a century...

Beyond all the JATP brouhaha, fans discovered Bird with Machito and Gillespie and (innovatively) strings; Diz with Stan Getz and both premier saxman Sonnys, as well as many gems from Getz as leader; solid releases aimed at keeping the names of Carter and Eldridge before the public; those three glorious duet albums of Satch and Ella, not to mention her "Great American Songbook" sets (jazziest with Duke); the later Basie band driving in high gear at full throttle, and Duke and his Ellingtonians staying as sly and tuneful as ever; unexpected classics by Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, Buddy DeFranco and Tal Farlow, bustling drummers Krupa and Rich; all the Anita O'Day albums needed to secure her reputation, and several that kept Billie Holiday alive if not well; the series of major sax LPs--alone or together--by Pres and the Hawk, Illinois and Ben the Brute, prickly Gerry Mulligan and laconic Johnny Hodges; plus more Oscar Peterson Trio LPs than the world could absorb, to put alongside the even more baroque series of albums recorded by Art Tatum, both alone and (almost) accompanied...

But enough already. There must be nearly two hundred true classics, and that's not counting the many career-revitalizing albums that appeared when Pablo got rolling in 1973. And they all owe their existence to the grit and grandiosity of Norman Granz.

I look forward to reading the more complete version of his amazing life story.

Postscript: The book arrived and is a disappointment, a sort-of vanity press collection of essays on jazz figures loosely associated with Granz, and with not much more on the man himself than I had already detailed above. Shucks. I guess the definitive book is still to be written.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you ever thought about writing the book? Is that something you would be interested in?

send me an email: