Book Review: Norman Granz by Tad Hershorn

“Norman Granz. The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice” by Tad Hershorn
(University of California Press. 2011. 470pp. Book Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Nobody ever matched the dominance and the success in the promotion and recording of jazz which Norman Granz (born in Los Angeles, 1918, died in Geneva 2001) axhieved in his heyday.

In 1954, it was estimated 500,000 people attended the shows Granz put on; he was also responsible in that year for around half of the new jazz records released in the United States. He built up his first record company -Verve – and sold it on for substantial profit to MGM in 1960. He then devoted his energies to Pablo, which Fantasy Records bought off him for a tidy sum in 1987.

A substantial biography – which this is – attempting to describe and explain the uniqueness of the Granz phenomenon is welcome, and overdue. Tad Hershorn’s book “Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice” has resonances well beyond jazz, first as an in-depth study of a fiercely determined man with a deep trust in the correctness of his own instincts; second as a many-faceted portrait of a life fully lived; and finally as an analysis both of musical and social trends of the second half of the twentieth century.

Granz’s unashamed instincts were to want the mood to be “up”, “producing highly charged concerts that […] expected the musicians to stand and deliver in a competitive format”, according to Hershorn. But it was a positive environment. Clark Terry in his recent autobiography remembers that the Granz infuence produced a lot more than just team ethos and camaraderie, remembering a strong spirit akin to being with a family during the long periods which Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) spent on the road.

Granz was early to spot the potential of magnetic tape recording and of the LP. His drive and determination were to ensure the survival of recorded legacies for Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. He also took a broader interest, and made room at his labels – if they wanted it -for artists less in tune with his personal leanings, such as Lee Konitz.

Hershorn sees more in Granz than just the successful entrepreneur. The biographer puts his cards squarely on the table on the front cover, in the book’s subtitle: “The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice”. This is incidentally not Hershorn’s own phrase, but was originally the headline of an article in the Washington Post by Nat Hentoff from 1994. Hershorn explains: Granz’s commitment to racial justice “resonated with me”. Granz’s refusal to tolerate segregated audiences and his early espousal of an anti-racist agenda are seen as the backbone of Granz’s principles, the beliefs he put into action throughout his life. Hershorn maintains that “America would have moved far more quickly toward racial equality” “if [others] had been as willing as he to lead by example”.

That’s the American perspective. The British perspective which emerges from the book is somewhat less pretty. Although Granz was eventually to build firm friendships over here and have one of his homes in London, his early attempts to bring JATP to Britain put him up against the UK Musicians Union, described as the “bane of his life” by Hershorn, who catalogues no fewer than eight instances of its obstructiveness.

Perhaps, incidentally, it was Granz’s experience of being blocked so often in the UK which led to him, much later, to seek to level the score against the British establishment: Granz secretly bankrolled the 1967 London run of Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial play Soldiers, in which the controversial charge is levelled at Churchill that he was responsible for the death of Polish Prime Minister Sikorski in an aeroplane crash in 1943. When the National Theatre’s board bowed to political pressure and turned the play down, Granz quietly stepped in to support Kenneth Tynan.

A possible low-point of Granz’s attempts to bring tours to the UK came when he threatened to cancel a tour if immigration officials did not withdraw their initial insistence that Ella Fitzgerald should be subjected to the indignity of a body-search at Heathrow Airport.

Granz’s last-minute threats to cancel individual shows or whole tours become something of an angry shout chorus running right through the book. The promoter’s tendency to be uncompromising and irascible comes across clearly. Hershorn does not attempt an explanation of the character, but concludes: “That he could be at once so calculatedly entrepreneurial and so staunch an upholder of human welfare and dignity remains the unsolvable riddle of his life”.

There is plenty of evidence of a Granz’s savagely competitive streak, whether applied to playing or watching tennis, or developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of the finest restaurants. There may even be hints as to where his unshakeable confidence in the rightness of his judgment came from: when Granz sold Verve for $2.8 million, he made a point of taking the cheque to show it to his mother. “I always knew you were lucky,” she smiled.

Granz had an absolute belief that musicians of all races should be treated with dignity and respect, that they should be well-paid and should stay in good hotels. Indeed, his generous support of people he believed in, and of their families, is well documented throughout the book. For instance, he gave money to Charlie Parker’s mother so that the alto saxophonist’s body could be flown home for family burial in Kansas City; having built a firm friendship with Pablo Picasso, Granz took out a full page ad in the French weekly L’Express for an open letter to Georges Pompidou, arguing that the President should give his support to a state-funded museum in honour of the artist; he was even insistent on paying Hershorn’s hotel expenses when the biographer visited him in Switzerland.

Hershorn is a self-avowed Granzophile. The book is detailed and carefully crafted, with virtually 400 pages of text, and has been a long time in the making. Hershorn traces his first interest in his subject to the mid-1970’s when he wrote record reviews of new releases on the Pablo label, and took photographs of musicians, which Granz was to use on record covers. Hershorn then wrote the first ever postgraduate dissertation about Granz in the 1990’s, with another one to follow for good measure.

The book, partly built on these, represents a thoughtful, necessary, even vital addition to the history of jazz.

The biography Norman Granz received support from the Roth Family Foundation.

University of California Press

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