Norman Granz: Goodbye, My Friend

“There is no one in the history of jazz,” Clark Terry told me, “who has had more respect for the musicians than Norman [Granz]. Once, a lot of his regular troops—Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and me, among them—were booked into a place in Italy where they didn’t have a dressing room. We had to dress out in the cold. The producer couldn’t understand why we looked so upset. Norman simply said, ‘Okay, let’s split.’ As we left, the promoter was screaming about suing Granz, and Norman said in that deadly way of his, ‘Go ahead. I don’t expose my people to this kind of treatment.’”

Norman also respected listeners. “When I gave a concert,” he told me, “I had an obligation to the man who bought a ticket. As a result, the first thing I did was ban all photographers who would rush up during the show to get what they called ‘good shots.’ The second thing is—and this happened every time I knew there was an auxiliary use, television or recording—I never let that thing be primary. The best concert was an uninterrupted concert that built as the musicians could make it build.”

And he had respect for future listeners. “At Verve,” Norman recalled, “my bookkeeper would invariably say, ‘Well, why do you want to put out Roy Eldridge?’ Or, ‘Why do you want to put out Ben Webster? They don’t sell.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, whether they sell or not, they’re important, they should be recorded and they’re what Verve stands for, so we don’t have to discuss that any further.’”

Norman died Nov. 22, 2001, at age 83 in Geneva of complications from cancer, but his legacy to jazz will survive forever. Imagine what the living history of jazz would be like without all the recordings Norman made. In 1954 I wrote in Down Beat: “Granz, more than any other single force in jazz…has consistently supported those artists that form the mainstream of the jazz tradition—artists whose roots are life-deep in jazz and without whom there would have been no modern jazz, cool or turbulent.”

Much has been written about the arrest by Houston detectives of Norman and Jazz at the Philharmonic musicians backstage on Oct. 7, 1955. As always, Norman had insisted that there would be no audience segregation at the concert. He himself removed the “white” and “Negro” signs in the auditorium.

There were to be two shows that night, and after the first, the musicians were playing cards in the dressing room. Three detectives, claiming to be life-long jazz fans, burst in, took the money on the floor and arrested everybody. As the cops moved toward the bathroom, Norman blocked their way. “What are you doing here?” one of the detectives asked. “Watching you,” Norman answered. “I want to make sure you’re not going to plant something.”

“I ought to kill you,” said the detective, pressing his revolver into Granz’s stomach.

“Well,” Norman said, “if you’re going to shoot me, I mean, shoot me.”

The cop said they were all going to be taken down to the station house. Norman pointed out that 3,000 tickets had been sold for the second show. “You’re going to have the biggest uprising you’ve ever had,” he told the detectives, “because I’m going to go out on stage and tell them the concert is cancelled, and then I’m going to tell them why it’s cancelled.”

A compromise was reached. Norman, Ella, Dizzy, Illinois Jacquet and Ella’s assistant were arrested with the promise they’d be back for the second show. They were in the station house for half an hour. Besieged by the press, Dizzy was asked his name. He said, “Louis Armstrong,” and that’s how it appeared in the papers. Norman paid the $50 bail and they went back to the auditorium, but first a detective asked Ella for her autograph.

Norman paid for the best lawyer he could find; the charges were dismissed. And Norman got the bail money back.

As Jon Thurber wrote in his first-rate Los Angeles Times obituary of Granz, Norman’s credo was: “If you don’t get substantially what you want, be ready to walk. And don’t look back.”

I often interviewed Norman and the musicians who traveled with him. Parts of some of those articles are in Let Freedom Swing: Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1944-1957—a thesis for a master of arts degree at George Mason University by Tad Hershorn, who is now the archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies. I’m grateful to Tad for preserving the stories because I’m a lousy archivist. He’s working on a full-scale biography of Norman Granz, to be published by HarperCollins, for which he spent time with Norman. He welcomes any stories about Norman: 973-353-5595 or hershorn@andromeda.rutgers.edu.

Originally published in March 2002

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