The man who used jazz for justice

In my annual birthday tribute to Ella Fitzgerald I have decried the absence of a biography of producer/manager/impressario/label owner Norman Granz. By my lights, Fitzgerald’s long association with Granz must be credited as the best thing that ever happened to her. Granz is in any event an incredibly interesting figure in his own right.

Tad Hershorn has now capably answered the need for a biography of Granz with Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, published this month by the University of California Press. Marc Myers’s JazzWax blog has posted an excellent four-part interview with Hershorn about Granz including terrific photographs and song clips (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4).

The subtitle of Hershorn’s book alludes to Granz’s passion for the cause of civil rights and racial equality. Granz loved good music and hated racial prejudice, in roughly equal measure. He put his money where his mouth was too, generally refusing to book his artists in racially segregated venues or otherwise accommodate Jim Crow. In this context Hershorn reveals Granz’s membership in the Musicians Section of the Los Angeles County Communist Party from 1945 to 1947, long past the time of any respectable excuse (my comment, not that of Hershorn, who writes from inside the now conventional liberal perspective).

For a Communist, Granz was an extraordinary businessman and entrepreneur. As Hershorn puts it, by the time the FBI took an interest in Granz’s old Communist connections, in 1956, Granz was “the reigning capitalist of the jazz world.”

Fitzgerald must have reposed an enormous amount of trust in Granz. Her relationship with him was a permanent fixture in her life, perhaps the only one. Granz first brought Fitzgerald aboard his epochal Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in 1949 and became her manager in 1953. Granz was responsible for her career from the mid-’50′s on, the period during which she became a world-renowned artist. He produced the “songbook” series of albums on Granz’s Verve label that brought Fitzgerald the respectful attention of a wide audience.

In the video below, Granz introduces the finale of his 1958 JATP show featuring Ella at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. The lineup features the Oscar Peterson trio with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar. Violinist Stuff Smith, Peterson, Ellis, and trumpet player Roy Eldridge take the solos on Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” (The now deceased Peterson contributed the deeply affectionate foreword to the book, dated August 2007.) There was no musical setting in which Ella didn’t shine; this historic footage places Ella in a great one.


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