Author: Tenenholtz, David
Date published: March 1, 2013
Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice. By Tad Hershorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. [xii, 488 p. ISBN 9780520267824, $34.95.] Photographs, chronology, notes, bibliography, index.
Tad Hershorn's biography on jazz impresario Norman Granz belongs in all music libraries, not only for the praiseworthy writing, but also for the fact that its subject is a leading light of the arts in the twentieth century. In the world of jazz, there were three main players who developed artists and records, concert tours, and the concept of the live music festival. George Wein brought this last phenomenon to fruition, while John Hammond was an influential talent scout and record producer who began with Swing Era jazz and ended in the 1980s with pop/rock. The third major player was Norman Granz, and as Hershorn himself states in his prologue, "this volume, by telling the story of Granz, the most independent of the three, completes the narrative of how jazz reached a mass audience in the heyday of the music" (p. 3). Hershorn's organization and presentation of the material, gleaned from unique primary source riches (many of which are housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers where Hershorn is an archivist), along with numerous secondary sources and interviews, make this book an authoritative overview of Granz's life. As Hershorn was able to interview many people close to Granz, and the subject himself at the end of his life, the material here offers deep insight into the rarified experiences at the top of the jazz world, with engaging accounts of the inner workings of concert tours, major milestones in the recording studios, and Granz's devotion to the struggle for racial justice.
Hershorn's own skills as a former newspaper writer, cultural historian, and archivist help to draw out and interpret the key events of Granz's life, even when Granz himself worked to obscure some of that effort: "He disposed of about seventy boxes of files probably dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, a veritable treasure, stored in the back room of his Beverly Hills offices. . . . It underscores the biographer's difficulties in venturing to reconstruct a whole from fragments of the past" (p. 10). Despite this loss, Hershorn's research and interview subjects (such as Oscar Peterson, Buddy DeFranco, and tour manager Peter Cavello) yielded a wealth of material that resulted in this book. With as much access as he had to the subject, he explains that unpacking all of the personal accounts and creating a reliable story was no easy task: "I have withheld some personal details where the omission does not distort the story, and I resisted speculation when there was no collaboration to justify including in this book. Norman Granz primarily recounts a professional life writ large upon jazz performance and recording, the life of a man with a giftfor turning both into gold and a will to lock horns with anyone that got in his way, especially where racial justice and 'his' musicians were involved" (p. 13).
Since the strengths of Hershorn's research and writing bear themselves out in a narrative, and neither he nor Granz were musicians, this book does not feature a music-analytical focus. Hershorn is a historian (and eager raconteur), but not a musician or musicologist, and he is careful in providing context for the stories that are told in Norman Granz. The jazz-enthusiast reader will not find a transcription of an Oscar Peterson solo, an example of Ella Fitzgerald's scatting on "How High the Moon," or a page of an arrangement from a Count Basie recording session. That said, Hershorn does have a unique ability to properly frame Granz's detailed involvement in advancing music, and shows how he was able to define how concert tours (jazz and pop) were organized in Europe, and how he formed one of the recording industry's biggest record labels (Verve) around a stable of leading artists. For that reason, scholars outside of musicology might take an interest in the biography, since it pertains to the interests of music industry and arts management students, as well as those of any jazz student (both undergraduate and graduate). Norman Granz satisfies a more general interest as well, and jazz lovers who want to learn about Granz' touring organization Jazz at the Philhar - monic ( JATP) will want to read this book. Professionals in other arts industries abound: film-maker Gjon Mili, folklorist Archie Green, artist Pablo Picasso, actor/ singer Yves Montand, and actress/singer Marlene Dietrich. Since Granz started his career in the recording studios in 1942 and ended (uncomfortably) in the age of computers and digital signal processing, those readers who are interested in the progression of the recording industry, or the niche of live music recordings in which Granz made his mark, will find his career extraordinary.
Indeed, Granz was an extraordinary figure, who came from meager beginnings in Los Angeles to become a self-made millionaire by age thirty-five, and controlled over half the jazz record market in the United States during the 1950s. He brought integrated audiences to live music when it was exceedingly unpopular, and fought tirelessly to make the industry adhere to his championing of racial equality, saying, "The essence of Jazz at the Philharmonic was that I wanted to get respect from everybody in the house. I wanted to get the best dressing rooms, I wanted the best pianos. They had to treat my musicians like they treated classical players" (p. 104). For this reason alone, the book should appeal to civil rights historians and racial justice scholars.
Although Granz made many enemies over time, most regular artists on the JATP roster sensed the privilege of working for such a principled concert organizer and manager, but Hershorn examines the negative remarks and at times argues the case for or against Granz. The most glaring example came from saxophonist Lester Young, a frequent participant, when he referred to Granz's tours as a "flying plantation." Hershorn, in a slightly defensive tone that does not come through often in the entire narrative, retorts on Granz's behalf, "The suggestion of exploitation would be difficult to dismiss if Young had not bene fited from Granz's friendship and patronage for the past eleven years" (p. 194).
The events that make up Granz's professional pursuits, balanced against a focus on the personal habits that made the man, are all a joy to learn about, but also seemingly hard to fathom. After the first JATP national tour went bust in 1945, Granz sold all his possessions to make sure the costs were covered to send the musicians back home on first-class train tickets. Soon thereafter, his fortune was so vast that he could subsidize any recording project he wanted to undertake (like a project of his hero, Fred Astaire) by the profits he raked in from live concerts. Writer Whitney Balliett estimated Granz's early 1950s JATP tours attracted more than a half-million integrated concert attendees annually. Each of these concerts brought five-figure profits to Granz time and again. He was therefore able to live a lifestyle intentionally devoted to luxury while at the same time ensuring that the JATP musicians received their fair share. He flew on the Concorde jet and maintained well-appointed properties in Paris, Geneva, London, and Beverly Hills. He had many of his suits tailored for him and his associates (like Oscar Peterson and Pablo Picasso) from London's famed Savile Row, and dined on the finest European cuisine available. As an entire chapter details, later in life, Granz became friends with Picasso, and invested heavily in fine art.
His life was thus marked by both opulence and his embrace of jazz, specifically the blues-drenched, swinging bop of the 1940s and 1950s, and his devotion to a mission that aimed to bring racial equality to the music industry in America. His capacity to be a bully and a shark who would have his way on no uncertain terms were his best assets as he swung for the fences and hit a wide variety of show business home runs, namely as manager for Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald for much of their careers.
Granz burned many social and professional bridges, and this lefthim assuming the role of unsung hero without much in the way of lifetime achievement awards or honors. Hershorn makes the argument, somewhat heavy-handedly, that Granz had no need to seek the approval of others in the industry, stating: "His attitude about how his memory would be interpreted reflected his view of the public's reception to JATP or his recordings: if you like them, fine; if not, that's okay too" (p. 14). How - ever, Granz did suffer losses, but possibly not from a lack of trophies in a cabinet. Towards the end of his life, Granz was more sour-tempered about the jazz concert business, and wound up distancing himself (sometimes only temporarily) from the artists that he had loved and collaborated with closely for decades, namely Oscar Peter son, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington.
Hershorn's book arrives at a measured but mixed conclusion about each of the outcomes of Granz's life and career in the arts, and the author does insert his own expertly honed opinions on why Granz's career milestones meant such a great deal to the music industry, even if they brought Granz no joy later. Overall, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice keeps a running theme, if somewhat dialed back in later chapters: Granz was a ruthless and tactical businessman who knew how to leverage those talents to fulfill the vital social justice maxims that he knew cast a harsh light on America and on the treatment of African American jazz musicians.
University of Richmond