Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice

In this excellent biography of Impresario/Jazz Fan/Civil Rights Crusader Norman Granz, Tad Hershorn follows Norman Granz’ trail through his concerts, his record labels, tours, his relationship with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, and his love and respect for the music and the musicians who created it.

His numerous labels (Clef, Norgran, Down Home, Verve, Pablo) played a crucial role in documenting swing era musicians at a time when their music was relegated to the dustbin by major record labels. His 1940s “Jazz At The Philharmonic” (JATP) tours cultivated the then-new “jazz concert” audience and brought the finest jazz musicians in the world to venues around the world. He developed the art of advance publicity to an effective publicity machine.

Hershorn paints a rich and detailed portrait of his subject. Granz lived in Detroit in the late 1940’s, one of a thousand fascinating facts Tad dug up during his years of research. He manages to keep his narrative flowing, coping well with the large amount of information.

Hershorn carefully follows Granz from his college days at UCLA to his final days in Switzerland, when he’d withdrawn from most of the world. There had been attempts to document Granz’ life, but each attempt (including Hershorn’s first effort) was ignored. Hershorn struck pay dirt after Granz read and approved of his Master’s thesis. This led to numerous phone interviews and culminated in a face-to-face meeting at Granz’ home. Hershorn took full advantage of that help. He brings to the table two critical qualities: His passion for the music, and an obsession with all things Granz. He was a larger than life character and it’s doubtful if any music besides jazz had the necessary depth for his strongly held beliefs and passion for music. At one concert, hecklers went after Ella full speed ahead, which prompted Granz, Benny Carter and Peterson to march to the offenders and assault them. That was Granz’ story – he talked the talk, and walked the walk. He was convinced that racial discrimination was the cause of America’s social ills, and his belief never wavered.

Despite his aversion to would-be biographers, Granz got a lot of press during his fifty years on the scene, and Hershorn makes good use of it. We quickly learn that he wasn’t one to keep quiet – about anything. He had little use for jazz critics, and wasn’t afraid to sue (or threaten to sue) those whom he felt slandered him or his undertakings. Some folks thought JATP pandered to the lowest common denominator of jazz fans, but people loved his concerts, honking saxophones and all. Where else could you hear the likes of Pres, Bird, Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson jamming?

Even Granz’ projects which didn’t happen sound fantastic: A duet recording with Bird and Art Tatum, or a full-length biographical film about Duke Ellington. Granz didn’t lack ideas, or the chutzpah to champion them. Despite his sometimes abrasive manner, his heart was in the right place, a summary which is reinforced many times in this book.

His “songbooks” featuring Ella Fitzgerald remain high-water marks of American music, and those dozens of solo recordings and small groups featuring Art Tatum contain brilliant jazz. He also launched Oscar Peterson’s American career, recorded Bird with Strings, and captured some beautiful Lester Young sides, to cite only a few of his accomplishments. He was prescient enough to record JATP concerts and issue them – another first.

As his musical heroes died, Granz found himself less interested in contemporary American music and “retired” to Switzerland, but he still remained involved with jazz. Pablo Records, named for his pal Pablo Picasso, continued Granz’ recording mission and ensured great jazz musicians got their due. He destroyed a large number of documents detailing his business dealings, and became more reclusive as he aged.

This is one of the better jazz biographies I’ve read. Chapters flew by, and the wealth of stories and events contained therein kept me engrossed. Hershorn has a solid knowledge of jazz history which benefits his subject and his readers.

It’s an honor to have Tad Hershorn at our festival. He will use many rare and unpublished images, video clips, and music excerpts to flesh out the big-screen story of Norman Granz. This is the first public event marking the publication of his Granz biography. The book will be available for purchase.
Tad Hershorn is Archivist at the Institute Of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

Norman Granz: Taking Jazz To The World
St. John Providence Health System Jazz Talk Tent
Monday, September 5, 3:00 – 3:45 pm

Hershorn struck pay dirt after Granz read and approved of Hershorn’s Master Thesis.

Book review by Jim Gallert

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