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Norman Granz

Visionary founder of Verve, Pablo, and Jazz At The Philharmonic

While working as an assistant editor at Warner Brothers pictures, a young jazz fan named Norman Granz acted as technical advisor for a ten minute short film, Jammin' The Blues, which won an Academy Award for best short subject for 1944. Granz should have gotten the director's credit, but settled for technical advisor - probably a guild problem. Legendary photographer Gjon Mili was given the director's credit and there's no argument here on that score because visually he the star was his lighting and cinematography, but he probably wasn't a member of the cameraman's union of IATSE. The film featured Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet on saxes; Marlowe Morris on piano; Red Callendar,b; Big Sid Catlett and Jo Jones, dms. plus dancer Archie Savage and dancer-vocalist Marie Bryant, who sang well enough that a lot of people remember her as either Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday. Still the best ten minutes in jazz video history more than a half-century later!
If Norman Granz had only done that one film, we'd have a lot of reasons to celebrate his life which began in south central Los Angeles, August 6, 1918 and, sadly, ended November 22, 2001 in Geneva, Switzerland.


When the Messner brothers started the Philo (later Aladdin) label that same year, Norman Granz was on board to produce the legendary session by Lester Young with Nat Cole on piano. Additional sessions followed. I always wondered if he was involved in the Coleman Hawkins date with Miles Davis on trumpet.


When Aladdin quit business, they sold some of the Prez masters to the Bihari Brothers who reissued some of the sides on their $1.00 Crown label. To cut down on the mechanical royalties, they repeated some of Prez's solos on several of the tunes so that the album would have 30 minutes of music on it. Sadly, this meant that several Prez titles owned by Crown never were issued by that company.


These Aladdin records sold well enough that the label survived the early years and was around to document the California blues scene: Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, etc. etc. etc.


1944 was also the year Granz promoted (and recorded) a concert at the Philharmonic Auditorium in L.A.. He sold the master to Moe Asch who issued it on his label, then distributed by Disc Company of America (another great record biz story). The album featured the first cover art of the great David Stone Martin. The concert had been successful but the record was a revolution! The first live jazz recording, Jazz At The Philharmonic, was followed by numerous other volumes. JATP was a trade mark and you only needed the four initials to talk about it. Tours and radio broadcasts followed. JATP even settled in the Sherman Hotel in Chicago featuring Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge for a spell c.1948...I used to listen to it in Wichita.

After a few additional albums with Disc, Granz started his Clef label which, after the Keynote-Mercury merger, became Mercury's jazz line. But Norman kept title to his masters and trademarks so when the original contract expired he restarted Clef with his own distribution.
(Years later, since Granz hadn't bothered reclaiming his 78 rpm metal parts, a print out of Mercury master holdings erroneously included such artists as Charlie Parker, Lester Young, etc.)


Granz could afford a jazz label because his concerts were profitable. So profitable, in fact, that he became a fighter for civil rights. If they wanted JATP they could not discriminate against the people who had given birth to the music. His concert-records formula has been followed in recent years in France with Black & Blue Records and in Holland with Timeless.


In the late 50's, Granz wanted to issue more albums without inter-label competition so he shifted some artists to Norgran and inaugurated the Verve label when he signed Ella Fitzgerald. Clef and Norgran featured modern jazz and swing and another brand, Down Home (purchased from Lu Watters) specialized in traditional jazz which Granz virtually locked up by signing Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Ralph Sutton, Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey, Joe Sullivan, George Lewis and Kid Ory. Verve became a jazz-pop label with Ella, Mel Torme and Anita O'Day on the roster but he also had a spoken word series which introduced comedians Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman successfully and a few others less so. Spike Jones, Ricky Nelson and other unjazz artists also appeared on Verve.


The idea of multiple labels in the record business is to have different people selling each label. It worked for RCA's Vik and Columbia's Epic labels because these majors had their own branches to sell their main label, and indie distributors were happy to have product backed with major label money and clout. But Granz had a problem -- the distributors only wanted Verve and were oft unwilling to handle the slower-moving other lines. So Granz switched his entire catalog to Verve.


In 1959, Norman moved to Europe where he booked extensive tours and managed Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald's careers, coming to the U.S. only for periods short enough to maintain the tax advantage of his Swiss residency. He eventually sold Verve to MGM. The package included 100+ unissued albums which, like the Blue Note trove, may not see release in my lifetime.


Granz continued recording live concerts. He was involved in recording his two artists on BASF as well so he eventually got that studio itch again. It's hard to figure out just when he started Pablo because he was pressing small quantities of those first releases and selling them by direct mail a year or two before they were marketed thru stores (by RCA in the US) in 1973. It was Verve revisited. Tho some of the greats had passed from the scene, he still had Ella, Basie, Peterson, etc, and introduced Joe Pass and many others.


Did you know he had Nils-Henning Orsted Pedersen on salary? When Oscar Peterson played Dick's Last Resort, the considerable fee for O.P. didn't include traveling sidemen but Granz sent Pedersen to Chicago to accompany him. That's the kind of man he was and the jazz scene won't replace him.


- Bob Koester