I thought I knew Norman Granz and his successive record labels Clef, Norgran, Verve, and Pablo pretty well. I’ve had records on these labels in my collection for years. Granz founded Verve Records in 1956, a time of change not only in music but in domestic politics and race relations as well.
Like Francis Wolf and Alfred Lion (Blue Note’s founders from Germany), Phil and Leonard Chess (Chess Records founders from Poland), and Ahmet and Nesui Ertegan (Atlantic Records from Turkey), Norman Granz had an outsider’s view and a European-type appreciation of jazz music. He once observed that, “Jazz is America’s own. It is the music that grew out of a young and vigorous melting pot nation. It’s a product of all America.”
But I never knew that much about the man. That has all changed with a remarkable new jazz book, Verve: The Sound of America, by Richard Havers. I didn’t know that Granz grew up here in Los Angeles and started his career in the city producing concerts downtown at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall and later The Shrine Auditorium. He saw jazz as a concert music that deserved concert hall treatment, away from the smoke, din, and ringing cash registers of jazz clubs.
He also was a fierce opponent of racial segregation in music, politics, and life. He insisted that his artists, black or white, play on the same stage, ride in the same class on trains and planes, stay in the same hotels, with black musicians entering in the front door. This was back in the 1940s, when racial prejudice raised its ugly head on a daily basis. It’s been said that he “used jazz for justice”.
He also championed tours abroad by his artists to Europe, Japan, and Australia. He took top jazz artists on those tours such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa, and countless others. He recorded legendary artists such as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, John Coltrane to name just a few.
The greatness that was Granz meant that he made no distinction between black and white, jazz and classical, or between traditional, swing, and the new bebop music that came of age in the mid 1940s. We get profiles of his large stable of top artists, as well as insight into people like graphic artist David Stone Martin, who designed the iconic cover art for so many JATP (Jazz At The Philharmonic–a famous series of live concert recordings), Verve, Clef, and Norgan labels.
Norman Granz was a jazz champion and this new book, 400 pages, with 1000+ illustrations and weighing in at a hefty 10 lbs, is a fitting tribute. Beautifully written and illustrated, it chronicles a unique life and offers a fascinating glimpse into American musical culture.
Verve Records has also issued a 5-CD companion CD set, Verve: The Sound of America–The Singles Collection. It features timeless works by artists in the Verve stable and reads like a who’s who of jazz immortals: Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery are celebrated in this comprehensive collection.
Here is Norman Granz introducing a JATP show in 1956: