[JPL] Terry Teachout regarding Tad Hershorn's book on Norman Granz

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Fri Nov 11 21:01:00 EST 2011


The Forgotten Man of Jazz

According to Percy Bysshe Shelley, poets---and, by extension, artists of 
all kinds---are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Yet the 
people who make it possible for artists to make art typically get even 
less acknowledgment. Agents, managers, editors, patrons, producers, art 
dealers, even the odd critic: All play pivotal roles in the creation and 
dissemination of art, but few are known by name save to insiders, and 
fewer still receive the posthumous credit that they deserve. Yes, Joe 
Orton's emergence as a major playwright was one of the great theatrical 
success stories of the 1960s---but the author of "What the Butler Saw" 
might never have gotten anywhere if Peggy Ramsay, Orton's agent, hadn't 
taken him on. Yes, Jasper Johns is now universally acknowledged as a key 
figure in the history of postwar American art---but it was Leo 
Castelli's decision to show Mr. Johns's work at his gallery in 1958 that 
set the painter on the path to fame.

Nowadays the name of Norman Granz, who died in 2001, is known only to 
gray-headed jazz buffs, but there's a fair chance that you own at least 
one of the hundreds of albums that he produced for Verve, the record 
label that he founded in 1956. The "songbook" albums in which Ella 
Fitzgerald recorded her interpretations of the collected works of such 
classic songwriters as Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Johnny Mercer 
were Granz's idea. So were the 14 albums taped at a series of marathon 
sessions in 1954 and 1955 in which Art Tatum, the greatest of all jazz 
pianists, recorded 120 stupendously virtuosic solo performances---nearly 
the whole of his working repertoire. So was Jazz at the Philharmonic, 
the now-legendary series of concert tours in which Granz brought 
together such illustrious artists as Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Stan 
Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich and 
Lester Young.

Granz is now the subject of a much-needed biography by Tad Hershorn 
called "Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice" (University of 
California Press). The title may sound a bit sober-sided, but it serves 
as a useful reminder of what Granz thought to be his most important 
achievement: A passionate opponent of racial segregation, he insisted as 
early as the '40s that all Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts be open to 
mixed-race audiences, and he went well out of his way to ensure that the 
many musicians who worked for him, be they black or white, were 
generously paid and properly treated wherever they went, even in the 
Deep South. "I insisted that my musicians were to be treated with the 
same respect as Leonard Bernstein or Jascha Heifetz because they were 
just as good, both as men and musicians," Granz said.

He wasn't kidding. All Jazz at the Philharmonic contracts contained 
ironclad antisegregation clauses, and Granz would cancel a show whenever 
those clauses were violated, no matter what it cost him at the box 
office. Moreover, he was equally respectful of his artists in the 
recording studio. A hands-off producer, he believed in letting the 
musicians whom he admired play whatever they wanted to play, and his 
concert tours were so lucrative that he was able to release albums that 
had no chance of turning a profit, simply because he thought that the 
music on them deserved to be heard.

Though Granz goes unmentioned in the standard histories of the 
civil-rights movement, his contribution to the cause of racial justice 
in America was considerable. That said, it seems likely that he will be 
remembered longest for his work as a record producer. It's extraordinary 
in retrospect how many of the albums he released on Clef, Norgran, Pablo 
and Verve, the four jazz labels he ran at various times between 1947 and 
1987, have proved to be of permanent interest. "The Art Tatum-Ben 
Webster Quartet," "The Astaire Story," "Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams 
Sings," "Ella and Louis," "The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford 
Shakespearean Festival," "Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson at the Opera 
House": All of these records, and many more like them, exist because of 
Norman Granz.

Granz was notorious in the world of jazz for his arrogance. He was the 
kind of man who never hesitated to say that he knew better than you, 
even when he didn't. But when it came to the musicians he admired, he 
was genuinely modest. "He looks upon himself as a kind of conduit down 
which the music has flowed, that's all," one of his close friends said. 
"In that sense, he has no ego at all." That's why he was reluctant to 
cooperate with the many scholars who sought to chronicle his 
achievements. "I don't care about posterity," he told Mr. Hershorn. "I 
don't care about what I accomplished, if anything." Maybe he 
didn't---but posterity will.
---Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, writes "Sightings" every 
other Friday. He is the author of "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong." 
Write to him at tteachout at wsj.com.

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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