Norman Granz was one of the most important non-musicians in the history of jazz. By moving artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker out of nightclubs and into concert halls around the world, he not only assured them better showcases and paydays, but also helped strike a blow for civil rights.
Or so claims Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies, in his new biography, Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice.
As an impresario, Granz not only insisted on first-class treatment for his artists, but also integrated audiences in the early years following WWII.
"He was able, as few progressives are, in blending radical social ideas to making money," Hershorn said in a recent interview. "It's not just that he encounters segregation — he really set out to challenge it as directly and ferociously as he could."
Hershorn does not portray Granz as a plaster saint; Granz, who died a decade ago, could be "brusque, rude and incredibly difficult," he says. Hershorn quotes the lyricist and biographer Gene Lees as saying that, to the extent Granz hasn't been given his due in jazz history, "it is to some extent his own fault."
But Granz's legacy is immense. In addition to bringing great artists on tour together internationally with his Jazz at the Philharmonic series — and guiding the careers of Fitzgerald and Peterson for decades — Granz founded labels including Verve and Pablo that, particularly in their later careers, provided much of the documentation we have of signal artists such as Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Art Tatum.
I asked Tad Hershorn to share five of his favorite recordings made by Granz.