Richard Havers – Verve: The Sound of America
(Thames & Hudson, 400pp., £45. Book Review by Chris Parker)
‘The story of Verve Records is the story of jazz.’ So begins the press release accompanying this sumptuously illustrated, meticulously detailed account of Norman Granz’s label (formed in 1955 to record Ella Fitzgerald), its predecessors Clef and Norgran, and the agenda-setting Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and tours that began in July 1944. The hyperbole is understandable – any label that issued some of the best work of musicians such as Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith, Johnny Hodges, Stan Getz (to name just a few) would expect its publicity department to make such a claim – but, like the book’s subtitle, ‘The Sound of America’, it has approximately the same validity as ECM claiming to be ‘The Sound of Europe’ (which, of course, it would never dream of doing).
This caveat aside, Verve: The Sound of America is undoubtedly a toothsome production, packed with information discographical, historical and personal, and lavishly but sensibly illustrated with everything from contemporary playbills and publicity photos to record sleeves, contracts and news reports. It begins with a brisk history of the beginnings of jazz, then traces Norman Granz’s uniquely influential activities within the music: removing jazz from the club and staging it in the concert hall; fighting the racial segregation that blighted the lives of many of its performers; ensuring that its artists were faithfully recorded and then properly rewarded – in short, attempting to persuade America to treat jazz with the respect it deserved, as the country’s richest gift to the contemporary world of arts.
Perhaps the most valuable feature of books such as this is their ability, courtesy of their access to historical archives, to surprise with the contemporary view. Thus, Paul Whiteman, on visiting Britain in 1926, was billed as ‘The Mussolini of the Ragtime world’; Billie Holiday’s voice was described by one reviewer as a ‘petulant, sex-edged moan’; booking agent Joe Glaser said to Anita O’Day: ‘You’ve got a million dollars’ worth of talent and no class’; Herbie Mann complained about his reception by the music press: ‘To most jazz critics I was basically Kenny G. I was too successful.’
Similarly, concert photos, albums of informal snaps taken on tours, original cover artwork, even candid shots of cigarette-strewn post-session studios all contribute not only to a fascinating and compelling picture of the involvement of Verve in the post-war jazz world, but also to a proper appreciation of some of Granz’s less celebrated innovations: his refusal to acknowledge the validity of the then-common rigid division of the music into traditional/modern; his enterprising packaging of the music via ‘concept’ albums and boxed sets; his lifelong prickly refusal to be placated by belated recognition (‘I think you guys are a little late’ was his reaction to being offered, in 1994, a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; ‘All this talk of jazz being the only truly uniquely American art form apparently has gone right by you. Pity’ was his handwritten comment to Bill Clinton on the President’s failure to name a jazz musician to ‘an Arts Award, especially when Benny Carter the last of the giants of jazz … is still actively playing beautifully’).
Of course, given that this is an ‘official’ biography of Verve etc., the more controversial aspects of Granz’s involvement in the music (succinctly summarised by the late Richard Cook: ‘he made something of a circus of jazz presentation, and his records were professionally satisfying but rarely surprising’) are barely touched upon, but overall Havers’s book is a skilfully presented and intelligently arranged tribute to a man who triumphantly succeeded in his stated aims: ‘I want to fight against racism, to give listeners a good product and to earn money from good music.’