In other words: Norman Granz, by the musicians who knew him
During this year’s Jazz Appreciation Month, we are exploring the relationship between jazz and justice by looking at the dynamic ways jazz has played a transformative role in social justice, musicians’ rights, and equality since its birth in America. For the first time in Jazz Appreciation Month history, our featured artist is not a musician, but a producer: Norman Granz. Granz was chosen for the contributions he made to jazz—and music in general—through his innovative production techniques, tireless promotion of the musicians he worked with, and firm stance on civil rights. You can learn more about Granz’s contributions in our earlier blog, but what do the musicians who worked with him have to say? In this post, we’ve dug into our expansive Smithsonian Jazz oral history archive to compose a picture of Granz’s work and its mark on the musicians who collaborated with him.
Granz’s passion for jazz allowed for an uncompromising vision that hit as much as it missed. His penchant for throwing musicians together and seeing what would happen led to some of the most memorable performances in jazz history and the establishment of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series. Trombonist J. J. Johnson explains Granz’s unique philosophy:
His whole concept was to put unlikely combinations of musicians together and just let the sparks fly, as he would say. . . . Not every Jazz at the Philharmonic recording is wonderful. They are all very good, well-produced, well thought out and all like that; but the musical content in some few cases left something to be desired. It was just a little bit more daring than was possible. That was Norman. He lived on the edge of the envelope as far as programming and as far as putting groups together. . . . He did not play it safe.
Granz’s philosophy of music and performance involved treating all the musicians he worked with to an experience that was “first class all the way”—which included premium travel, lodging, and fair pay, as drummer Louie Bellson describes:
Norman Granz said, “You join my outfit, you’re going to go first class all the way.” Whenever we flew on an airplane, everybody went first class, for a lot of money. . . . Also, Norman Granz, besides having me on tours in Europe, in Japan, and in the States, he called me up one day and said, “Ella Fitzgerald is getting a big award at Radio City hall in New York. I want your New York band there. I want you to play four numbers, and I want you to escort Ella out on the stage.” I didn’t talk money with him. I said, “Pay the band.” Later on I got a check for playing four numbers and escorting Ella out on the stage. I got a check for $10,000. That gave you an idea of what he did for people. He loved Roy Eldridge, Dizzy, Lester Young, Ella, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson. You went first class all the way, stayed in the finest hotels. That was Norman Granz. He’d say, “I want the music to be right.”
Musicians and the music they created were central concerns for Granz, and anything that got in the way of that was unacceptable, including racial discrimination. Trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison discusses the pride musicians felt after working with Granz, and how Granz handled discrimination:
I got a call from Norman to do Jazz at the Philharmonic and that was, what can I say, what a thrill. The world’s greatest was on there. Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Buddy Rich, Bill Harris on trombone, Roy Eldridge, myself. In fact, Norman Granz was the first one to give the musician a lot of pride. Everything was first class. . . . He really gave us something . . . me, personally, that I’d never had, that first-class treatment like that. . . .[I]f there was any kind of discrimination in any hall, quit. There was no conversation with the promoter at all, that was it, we were gone. And the money was no object, we would get paid.
Granz’s fierce loyalty to, and protection of, the musicians he worked with was so central to his personality that he didn’t stop at confronting the discriminatory practices of concert promoters and venues. He would directly chastise audiences for talking or disrupting performances. Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco recalls a time in Paris when a group of disruptive audience members, organized by a vindictive critic, tried to ruin his performance:
Norman came out and he said, “If there is any more booing I’m going to close the curtain and that’s the end of the show, and you don’t get your money back. That’s it.” So he calmed everybody down. And Norman was the kind of a guy that could tell an audience off. Three thousand people, he could… he had that command. That’s why he became what he did. He was really self-assured, and an innovator.
Granz’s respect of musicians and their craft went beyond telling off thousands of concert-goers. He also gave artists the opportunity to follow their creativity and passions in the studio; even if they weren’t in line with their known styles, drummer Bellson explains:
Norman came to me . . . and said, “You’ve been with me a long time. I’ve never given you a bonus. What do you want to do for a recording? I don’t care if you want to hire a symphony orchestra. I don’t care what you want to do. What do you want to do?” I said, “My teacher Buddy Baker and I wrote 26 arrangements. Twelve of them are all woodwinds. 26 written arrangements. The other 12 are all strings. Mood music. All love. Journey into love.” He said, “That’s what you want to do? Okay.”
This openness extended to new talent recommended to Granz as well. In Toshiko Akiyoshi’s case, pianist Oscar Peterson’s chance encounter with her in a rare Japanese jazz club led to his recommendation to Granz to record her during the first Jazz at the Philharmonic tour of Japan:
I didn’t think about it in those days, but later on I thought about—now, who am I? Ray Brown, Herb Ellis, you know, J. C. Heard, I mean they were like real giants of jazz players. They have nothing to play. . . . That’s the way he liked to record. . . . [I]f he’s featuring somebody, he features somebody, that’s it. . . . In those days, if you said a Japanese plays jazz, it was like . . . “REALLY?” You know, you couldn’t believe from today. Especially if it was a girl . . . and Norman Granz recorded it. So there was a lot of reason for people to maybe pay attention.
These stories illustrate the indelible mark that Granz has made on the world of jazz, but even more on those who worked with and knew him. His no-nonsense approach to venues and audiences commanded respect for musicians on and off the stage, extending into battles over the rights of musicians of any race to perform anywhere. His love of music carried over into the respect and sincerity with which he treated musicians and the performances he helped bring to the world.
To learn more about Norman Granz, stop by our featured artist page during Jazz Appreciation Month. To listen to stories about the rich history of jazz from the people that lived it, make sure to visit our Smithsonian Jazz oral history program.
Smithsonian Jazz is made possible through leadership support from the LeRoy Neiman Foundation; The Argus Fund; Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, founding donor of the Jazz Appreciation Month endowment; David C. Frederick and Sophia Lynn; Goldman Sachs; and the John Hammond Performance Series Endowment Fund.
Joseph Meyer is an intern in the Office of Programs and Audience Development and wants to share all the awesome things he finds with you. He is currently working on his PhD in American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.