Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice

  • Tad Hershorn
  • University of California Press
  • 488 pp.
  • November 14, 2011

The first biography on Norman Granz chronicles his career and the history of the music he championed.

Reviewed by Joseph Kip Kosek

Norman Granz never played or sang professionally, but he was one of the most brilliant improvisers in jazz history. Without established precedents, he devised bold new ways to perform, record, popularize and sell America’s quintessential cultural innovation. This backstage player gets his moment in the spotlight with Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice. Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, has written the first biography of his subject. It is an eye-opening journey through Granz’s long career and, more broadly, through the colorful history of the music he championed.

Granz was, in Hershorn’s words, a “gifted, heroic, difficult, and enigmatic man.” He was jazz’s greatest capitalist, making millions of dollars as a promoter, manager and impresario, but also seems to have considered himself a communist. He opened his concerts with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but later turned his back on the United States and spent decades living in Switzerland. Though he had rewarding long-term partnerships with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, among others, he could suddenly alienate friends and associates (and, in Hershorn’s case, aspiring biographers) over rather trivial differences. In short, Granz’s greatness was almost as complicated as that of Billie Holiday, Stan Getz and other mercurial musicians of his generation.

Improvisation started early for this child of Russian Jewish immigrants. Born in Los Angeles in 1918, the young Granz absorbed all that the rapidly growing, multiracial city had to teach. His immersion in “New Deal culture” gave him a lifelong sympathy for the political left as well as a musical education, most importantly in the “distinguished but underrated” Los Angeles jazz scene. Between the clubs there and a trip to Harlem in 1942, Granz crossed paths with the music’s greatest talents, including Holiday, Lester Young, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington. He began organizing small nightclub sessions, but those were just the beginning.

In 1944, Granz began Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), “the longest-running and most influential series of jazz concerts in the music’s history.” Originally housed at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles, JATP soon grew into a national, and later international, touring group of the country’s top jazz musicians. Jazz concerts had been done before, but never at this scale or with this kind of success. Granz brought jazz into new venues without losing the music’s sense of immediacy and risk. Even in studio recordings for Verve and his other labels, he tried to nurture a spirit of spontaneity by recording only one take of a song.

JATP exemplified the three central goals that, in Hershorn’s telling, drove Granz’s career: “presenting good jazz, challenging segregation, and showing that good money could be made by bringing the two together.” Granz’s anti-racism was a guiding tenet of his life. The book’s subtitle, taken from a Washington Post piece by Nat Hentoff, is misleadingly narrow: Granz did far more with jazz than “use” it for “justice.” That said, he was well ahead of his time in his uncompromising commitment to African American equality. His concerts were, at his insistence, integrated in terms of both musicians and audience. Not everyone appreciated the impulse. When JATP visited Charleston, South Carolina in 1954, Granz threatened to cancel the show when he saw black patrons relegated to the balcony of the hall. Eventually some were moved downstairs, but the band had to rush out of town as soon as the concert ended to avoid violent retribution by local white supremacists.

If Granz’s racial politics brought controversy, so too did his opinion of “good jazz.” Hershorn’s story is very much about the ambiguous place of jazz in the nation’s cultural hierarchy. Was it folk music or high art? Should it be enjoyed in smoky bars or Carnegie Hall? At one level, Granz was a bit of a music snob. Regarding his creation of JATP, he said: “A good concert is better for music making than a nightclub full of patrons more interested in drinking than listening.” He helped turn jazz into a respectable musical genre, and he helped turn jazz players, most of them African American, into respected American artists.

Still, the music retained an aura of disrepute. “Pandemonium Pays Off,” scoffed the title of one skeptical review of a JATP concert. At one point, Jazz at the Philharmonic was actually banned from the Philharmonic. The hall’s managers cited infractions of various kinds, including smoking, drinking and trying to enter without a ticket, but Granz thought that the real problem was the racial diversity of JATP fans.

Despite these difficulties, jazz became both a popular and critical sensation in Granz’s heyday. One suspects that his disillusionment in the 1960s came from watching the decline of that remarkable convergence. Neither the increasingly esoteric experiments of John Coltrane nor the crossover artists who borrowed from rock and R&B won his approval. He resurfaced to make a few recordings of his old favorites, including the fabulous late Count Basie albums, but he never again dominated the industry.

In navigating these developments, Hershorn is an expert guide, sometimes too much so. His source material is tremendous, particularly his interviews of Granz and his associates, and the illuminating debates carried on in the pages of the music press. However, Hershorn tends to stay too close to those sources, presenting so many of them so relentlessly that the book can feel somewhat encyclopedic at times. A stronger editorial hand would have produced a crisper, more powerful biography.

In the end, though, Norman Granz is an impressive achievement. Some books are hard to put down. Yet readers may well find themselves putting this one down as they run to their online music libraries, CD shelves, or (for a lucky few) LP collections to listen again to Art Tatum’s piano, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, or some other piece of Norman Granz’s legacy. That’s okay. Listen for a while. Then remember to come back and finish reading the story of how all that essential, irresistible music came to be.

Joseph Kip Kosek is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University. He is the author of Acts of Conscience: Christian Nonviolence and Modern American Democracy.

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