Ella Fitzgerald & Norman Granz: She Was His Star

Excerpt from Tad Hershorn's Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice

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Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald
By Tad Hershorn
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Norman Granz
By Tad Hershorn

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Norman Granz, the impresario who made his name at the helm of Jazz at the Philharmonic, was hardly impressed when he first heard Ella Fitzgerald with the Ink Spots in his hometown of Los Angeles in the early ’40s. The singer was equally hesitant about Granz’s vaunted intensity when, four years after she debuted with JATP in 1949, he asked to become her personal manager. Nevertheless, he began producing her records in 1956 with the formation of Verve Records, resulting in some of the most thrilling and enduring vocal sides of all time. The combination of Granz’s business savvy and Fitzgerald’s immense talent elevated her status from one of jazz’s most beloved singers to the international First Lady of Song.

This excerpt from Tad Hershorn’s soon-to-be-published Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice (University of California Press) explores the complex history and sometimes mysterious nature of that legendary partnership.

*****

Jazz at the Philharmonic’s 1953 tour of Japan was still in progress when Norman Granz acquired the Hope Diamond of his career. On the flight between Tokyo and Osaka, he talked with Ella Fitzgerald about taking over her personal management when her contract with Moe Gale at Associated Booking Corporation would expire that December. Gale, one of the owners of the Savoy Ballroom, had been involved with Fitzgerald since the beginning of her career as part of his managing the Chick Webb Orchestra from late 1929. Gale had also delivered the band to Decca Records as one of the new label’s earliest attractions, and had pressed Webb to bring a female vocalist into the band.

“I’d been thinking for years about taking over Ella’s personal management. … Ella was afraid. She thought I was too much of a blow-top,” Granz reflected. “So I told her it was a matter of pride with me, that she still hadn’t been recognized—economically, at least—as the greatest singer of our time. I asked her to give me a year’s trial, no commission, but she wound up insisting on paying the commission. We had no contract. Mutual love and respect was all the contract we needed.” In 2001, he added, “I didn’t claim to be the only manager. I never had a contract with Ella or Oscar [Peterson] or Basie or Duke. I told Ella, if you want the luxury of saying, ‘Norman, I quit,’ you’re off. Go for yourself, but I want the luxury of quitting you, too. So we had a nice relationship. Ella lasted for maybe 40 or 45 years, Oscar well over 50.” After she agreed to go with Granz, he satisfied an IRS debt that Gale had allowed to pile up and that the government was pressing to settle. The changing of the guard was at hand.

Together, they worked to polish her talent and enhance her reputation. Granz had plans to widen her scope musically and upgrade the venues in which she appeared, as well as to get her higher pay that would leave what Granz called “52nd Street money” in the dust. Signs were abundant that Fitzgerald was ready to enjoy a deeper appreciation of her talent. In May 1954, on her opening night at New York’s Basin Street East club, the entertainment elite gathered to celebrate her 19 years in the business. Decca Records presented the singer with a plaque citing her sales of over 22 million records since the Chick Webb days. Newsweek’s coverage of the evening captured the essence of what Granz would capitalize on in the years ahead, when he coordinated her personal management and recording activities. “Other popular singers tend to become identified with a particular musical groove,” the magazine reported. “Ella Fitzgerald plays the field, exerting a talent which, in addition to an unmatched pliability, has demonstrated an uncommon staying power.”

Granz translated that acclaim to book the singer into more prestigious clubs and hotel showrooms that had previously been closed both to black artists and to jazz in general. Granz and Fitzgerald were not alone in thinking that her talent deserved a higher profile. In early 1955, Marilyn Monroe lent her prestige to help broker Fitzgerald’s first appearance at the Mocambo on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. The run was extended to three weeks after sold-out crowds brought club-owner Charlie Morrison completely around and led him shortly thereafter to book Nat Cole and Eartha Kitt. Fitzgerald returned to the Mocambo twice more in the next year and a half, generating the club’s largest business after the release of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook in 1956. The success of Fitzgerald’s appearance also helped usher in the opening of integrated nightclubs in Hollywood, among them Pandora’s Box, the Purple Onion, the Crescendo and the Renaissance.

Word of Fitzgerald’s drawing power at the Mocambo spread across the industry, and within a month Granz had booked her for three weeks at the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, marking the first time the room had ever booked a jazz act. In November 1955 she returned to Las Vegas after a five-year absence for a date at the Flamingo Hotel.

Granz’s campaign for Fitzgerald’s recording contract became more aggressive as the deadline to re-sign with Decca Records approached and her apparent frustrations with her longtime label surfaced. Nat Hentoff conducted a particularly revealing interview published in February 1955, when one can almost hear Granz’s prompting behind her unusually frank and public airing of what she considered missed opportunities with Decca. Granz finally had the opportunity to pry Fitzgerald away 10 months later and swooped in like a hawk. In June 1955 Universal had begun prerecording the soundtrack of The Benny Goodman Story starring Steve Allen as Goodman. Many of the musicians from the clarinetist’s former bands played themselves, along with a handful of contemporary musicians. Decca did not know or did not think it mattered until late in the game that Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and Stan Getz were all under exclusive contract to Granz. Although Lionel Hampton recorded extensively for Granz, he was not similarly bound contractually. When Decca finally came to Granz seeking a release for the musicians, he expressed his willingness to negotiate. Ever the wily bargainer, he knew he held all the cards. “I proposed that if they wanted the soundtrack badly enough, in return I wanted a release of Ella from her Decca contract. It was that simple.” The label finally ceded Fitzgerald in the first week of January 1956, barely a month before the film’s release on Feb. 2. Granz, anticipating Ella Fitzgerald’s arrival, announced the formation of Verve Records almost as soon as she departed Decca.

Thus began the second and greatest of the three major phases of her recording career, the last being the Pablo years in the 1970s and 1980s. Granz insisted that her leaving Decca and the establishment of Verve were unrelated. His plan, he said, had been to merge Clef, Norgran and Down Home into a broader-based entity that would include popular music as well as jazz. Rather than being created merely as a vehicle for Fitzgerald, Verve was his solution to another longstanding problem: the hemorrhaging of money from his jazz labels, whose finances had up until then depended exclusively on the tours. Granz said the wider focus of Verve allowed him to design a more effective network of disc-jockey promotion and other activities more associated with pop music.

“Granz will have no connection with Verve except for owning it,” DownBeat reported. “All central operations will be handled by 24-year-old arranger-conductor Buddy Bregman.” The two had met in November 1955 on the tennis courts at Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer’s home in Los Angeles. Bregman, the nephew of songwriter Jule Styne, had been a fan of Granz and JATP since seeing the concerts at the Civic Opera House in the late 1940s. Granz told him of his plans to begin a new label and asked if he would consider going to work for him. Bregman’s early successes with popular music and his enthusiasm gained Granz’s confidence. Granz may have also felt that Bregman’s youth would make him more affordable, more controllable, and better attuned to the contemporary pop markets than an established arranger. He reported for work at the Granz offices at 451 North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills as head of pop A&R at a weekly salary of $500, plus scale for all orchestrations and sessions. “I started on a Monday, we did not have a name on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, Norman had come up with Verve.”

Granz had wanted Fitzgerald to do a Cole Porter album for many years and had unsuccessfully appealed to Decca to undertake such a work. “They rejected it on the grounds that Ella wasn’t that kind of singer,” Granz said in 1990. “I could understand it from their point of view, because they had one thing in mind and that was finding hit singles. I was interested in how I could enhance Ella’s position, to make her a singer with more than just a cult following amongst jazz fans. … So I proposed to Ella that the first Verve album would not be a jazz project, but rather a songbook of the works of Cole Porter. I envisaged her doing a lot of composers. The trick was to change the backing enough so that, here and there, there would be signs of jazz.”

Granz prepared for the Porter recording with the same methodical zeal that he had shown in producing such pioneering deluxe album projects as The Jazz Scene (1950) and The Astaire Story (1953). He instructed his main assistant, Mary Jane Outwater—“secretary” would be too narrow a term to describe the role Granz entrusted her with—to track down two copies of every Cole Porter song in publication and then winnow them down to about 50 songs for Fitzgerald to consider. His first choice to arrange the 32-song two-LP set was Nelson Riddle, the former Tommy Dorsey trombonist and arranger who had made his mark in the early 1950s when Nat Cole selected him to oversee his Capitol vocal sessions. Frank Sinatra credited Riddle for virtually reviving his career on the same label. However, Riddle’s manager, Carlos Gastel, was not keen on loaning him out. Finally Granz chose to “take a chance on Bregman. He knew all of the songs and had an affinity for the material.”

Fitzgerald, Bregman and Granz soon got down to work. Bregman’s varied arrangements, played by top-drawer Los Angeles jazz and studio musicians, gave a pop quality to the songs; still, the sessions retained room for jazz feeling and some improvisation, accommodating Fitzgerald’s jazz instincts. Granz also leaned on Fitzgerald to sing all the verses to the songs—“She had to spend time learning the verses and she didn’t want to,” he recalled—to feature the full scope of the lyricists’ art and make the albums that much more distinctive and authoritative. The songbooks required a different approach from what Fitzgerald had been used to, when she went into a studio with a trio and reeled off tunes in two to three takes before quickly moving on. Granz noted, “When I recorded Ella, I always put her out front, not a blend. The reason was that I frankly didn’t care about what happened to the music. It was there to support her. I’ve had conductors tell me that in bar 23 the trumpet player hit a wrong note. Well, I don’t care. I wasn’t making perfect records. If they came out perfectly, fine. But I wanted to make records in which Ella sounded best. I wasn’t interested in doing six takes to come back to where we started. My position has always been that what you do before you go into the studio really defines you as a producer. The die has been cast. I have very little to do other than to say one take is better than another.”

Though Granz and Cole Porter had been friends through Fred Astaire since around the time of The Astaire Story, Granz chose not to involve him in the process, as Porter was notoriously picky about how singers recorded his work. Instead, once the recordings were done, he took a stack of the acetates with him to New York to play for Porter. “He loved them,” Granz said after two hours with the composer at his Waldorf Astoria apartment. Porter was delighted by Fitzgerald’s treatment of his work, including her diction. And if Porter was happy, the listening public was ecstatic to hear the old and familiar “Night and Day,” “In the Still of the Night,” “Begin the Beguine,” and “I Love Paris” side by side with lesser-known songs such as “All Through the Night,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” or “I Am in Love.”

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook took off beyond Granz and Fitzgerald’s wildest expectations, both commercially and artistically, becoming one of the top-selling jazz records of all time. Sales boosted the fortunes of the young Verve and laid the groundwork for the remainder of its signature series in the years to come. When sales hit 100,000 in the first month, the album went to No. 15 on the Billboard charts, and two weeks after its release it was ranked second in a DownBeat poll of bestselling jazz albums. “It was the 11th biggest LP of the year. That was insane for me. Verve put me in the commercial market for the first time,” Granz said of the best selling album of his career.

On Aug. 15, 1956, a spectacular concert at the Hollywood Bowl featured Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars and Art Tatum alongside Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson Trio and a JATP ensemble filled out by Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, Flip Phillips, Illinois Jacquet and Buddy Rich. The album, Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, became effectively the 1956 volume of the JATP recordings. Granz later received a letter from the Hollywood Bowl telling him that the concert had been the best attended jazz event in the history of the outdoor facility—ironic given that 11 years earlier the Bowl’s management told Granz that they did not want to host any event with the word “jazz” in its title.

Fitzgerald and Armstrong went into the studio with the Oscar Peterson Trio and Buddy Rich the day after the Bowl concert to record the first of three albums that not only sold well but are thought to be among the finest of Granz’s career. Armstrong was unusually hard to corral given his seemingly nonstop touring schedule, and often his trumpet playing was barely up to par when Granz had the chance to record him: To compensate, Armstrong sang more. His manager Joe Glaser didn’t make it any easier by approving dates for Armstrong at the last minute, leaving Granz with only a day or two at most to prepare, as was the case with all three of the Ella and Louis records from 1956 and 1957. Granz later said that Armstrong, unlike Fitzgerald, with her perfect diction and loyalty to the music as written, “never deferred to the material. He did what he did, and that was the thing I was trying to capture. You could hear his breathing or sighing or, instead of the word, he’d come out with a sound. But to me, that’s its quality.” The contrast between their styles was pure magic. Fitzgerald deferred to Armstrong to make the final choices on the songs and keys. Photographs taken during the sessions show Armstrong and Fitzgerald, dressed in casual summer clothes, thoroughly enjoying one another.

Shortly afterwards, on Aug. 21, 1956, Granz, Bregman and Fitzgerald returned to Capitol Studios to get started on the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songbook and thereby capitalize on the momentum provided by the Porter release. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Rodgers and Hart Songbook followed the pattern set by the Porter, with big band, band with strings and small-group arrangements. Though the content of the Songbook albums was pretty much set by Granz in consultation with Fitzgerald, there was still give-and-take in the studio when the singer occasionally resisted her manager’s wishes. For example, during the recording of Rodgers and Hart, she refused to sing “Miss,” as in “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Granz recalled, “It was not a woman’s lyric. So she changed it to ‘Have you met Sir Jones?’ I was very unhappy about that, but we were in the midst of recording and Ella was very firm. I had to think of the whole project, and I didn’t think it warranted a stand on principle. I could have eliminated the song, and I considered that. But since it was such a good song and Buddy’s arrangement was good, I gave in.”

The benefits of Granz’s management, which, like Fitzgerald’s singing, found distinctive ways of melding jazz and pop, can be seen in an infatuated review in the Hollywood Reporter of her October 1956 Mocambo appearance. “The contagion grew to such proportions that they wouldn’t let the gal go after 13 songs and 50 minutes. It was a beg-off. … Miss Fitzgerald, spurred on by such idolatrous acclaim (heralded, of course by her smash LP album of Cole Porter songs), has never been in finer form,” the reviewer noted.

“Ella was easy,” Granz said late in life. “All Ella needed was a good manager, which I was for her compared to what she’d had—and the record company, that was total. Decca did good things for her and Milt Gabler was a good producer, but she was one of many artists at Decca. When I formed Verve, she became the artist and she had the advantage not only of someone to manage her, but also presenting her concerts. I was unique among managers, in that I owned the record company and I was also an impresario.” But Fitzgerald told her old friend Leonard Feather that she and Granz had had many confrontations over the years and that she had never been just putty in his hands. Rather, the two of them combined formidable qualities in making their partnership successful. “Granz has an irascible side; Ella says she has learned to live with it,” Feather said. As Fitzgerald explained, “The idea was, get him to do the talking for me and I’d do the singing. I needed that. Sometimes we’d argue and wouldn’t speak for weeks on end, and he’d give me messages through a third party, but now I accept him as he is, or I may just speak my mind. We’re all like a big family now.”

The exact nature of Fitzgerald and Granz’s relationship has long been a subject of fascination, with some believing that Granz exercised a disproportionate and domineering influence over the singer’s affairs. Others who knew her better paint a more complex picture of someone for whom work—and lots of it—was her life. Granz’s focus on Fitzgerald’s career demonstrated the attention to detail he had so fully mastered over the years. Pianist Paul Smith said Granz selected about 99 percent of the music Fitzgerald sang and recorded in the ensuing decades. He also handled the messy duty of hiring and firing musicians, always acting in concert with Fitzgerald’s wishes. “At the very beginning, I turned Ella’s career around by merely dictating different approaches—work at the Fairmont Hotel, not the 331 Club. But that was an economic decision,” Granz said. “When I first broke the Fairmont in San Francisco with Ella, she asked me what she was getting. I told her and she said, ‘But that’s not right. We’re getting less than in a club.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you’re building a reputation for playing the Fairmont Hotel. Next time around, you’ll get 10 times more.’”

Given her insecurities despite her renown, she needed some coaxing to come out of her shell to help Granz promote her career. For example, Virginia Wicks, both a personal friend and her publicist during this period, said Fitzgerald feared interviews partly because of her general shyness around other people. “She knew there were many intelligent people coming to interview her,” Wicks said. “She didn’t think she had the vocabulary or knowledge to deal with them. You almost had to trick her into an interview. It was very important to Norman. Yet Ella would really sulk. But she didn’t do a lot of talking. She kept a lot inside her head.”

Some have charged Granz with overworking Fitzgerald in the giddy years when she began to roam the upper echelons of the entertainment world. But those who knew Fitzgerald better describe someone for whom singing was her life. Her pianist Paul Smith first toured with Fitzgerald in 1960, spending six months in South America and Europe; in 1962, he was on the road with the singer for 46 weeks. “She was fun. How could you not have fun playing with her?” he said. “As far as the amount of work, Norman was kind of trapped in between. Ella would complain that she was working too hard and he would not book her for about two weeks. Then she would say, after about the first week, ‘Why aren’t I working? Don’t people want to see me?’ Norman was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Ella really didn’t have much of a home life. Her home was the stage. When she was onstage, she was loving it.”

Smith acknowledged that sometimes Fitzgerald got extra nervous when she knew Granz was coming in to hear a show and that sometimes Granz imposed his views on her repertoire in ways she didn’t like. For instance, Granz “disliked anything Stephen Sondheim ever wrote” and made sure Fitzgerald didn’t perform it. “Benny Carter wrote a beautiful arrangement of ‘Send in the Clowns,’” Smith remembered. “Norman came in and said, ‘What are you playing this for?’ He made such an issue of it we took it out of the book.”

Granz was also irritated, according to Smith, by the idea of Fitzgerald recording with her Verve label-mate Mel Tormé, who was Fitzgerald’s friend and was, like her, a master of scat singing as well as a gifted songwriter, arranger and all-around musician. The mentions of Granz in Tormé’s later memoirs are not entirely complimentary. After a concert tour with Fitzgerald to Australia, which Granz oversaw, Tormé came to the conclusion that “Norman was not one of nature’s noblemen.” Later he wrote, “What Ella needed was direction. She was in danger of falling into the ‘cult singer’ trap, an abyss wherein only jazz fans and musicians appreciated her. This was not the way to gold, and, even though she was solidly committed to singing in her jazz-oriented, jazz-influenced manner, she wanted more out of life than smoky joints and out-of-the-way venues in which to ply her trade. … Her help came in the form of Norman Granz. This Svengali-like handling of Ella has produced astounding results. . . . He had her embark on a series of ‘songbooks’ that elevated her into a new category, a ‘pop-jazz’ singer. These songbooks were landmark recordings and led to Ella becoming persona grata in every part of the civilized world. Her fame spread to the four corners of the earth, and in this country, she played where she wanted to.” Granz, however, disputed the “Svengali” image and the idea that he had begun to totally run the singer’s life from top to bottom. “None of that bothered me,” he said. “I had a job to do and I did it.”

Granz explained his relationship to Fitzgerald and how he saw his role in a 1987 interview with the record producer and broadcaster Elliot Meadow. “If I’m standing next to Ella Fitzgerald and people want her autograph, and someone in the line says, ‘I don’t know who that tall old man is standing next to Ella, but I think I’ll get his autograph, too. Who knows who he is?’ That’s all right,” Granz said. “My ego’s just as large as any performer’s, because I know my function. … Don’t worry. I know what my contribution was just as much as I know Ella’s contribution.”

Granz’s interest in seeing that Fitzgerald’s artistry and dignity were protected did cross over into her personal life. When Fitzgerald moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the center of the action with Granz, she bought a home on Hepburn Avenue on the predominantly black West Side. But as Granz later recalled, “Finally, when she really made big money, I suggested she move to Beverly Hills. The people who wanted to sell the house wanted the money, and they happened, by coincidence, to be Ella fans. I talked to the real estate agent, bought the house in my name and gave it to Ella in her name. That way, we circumvented the racism that existed. Ella was always shielded from economic choices, but she was always made aware of them.”

“There was a kind of naiveté about her,” Paul Smith said. “She was like a little girl. If she was unhappy she’d pout like an 8-year-old, which, in a way, she was. I always thought of her as a lady who never quite grew up. She always had that little girl quality about her. Her feelings could be hurt very easily. Ella was a very tender lady. She loved kids. She was kind of like a kid herself, inside. She never had a romantic life. Ella was a lonely lady and every once in a while one of those guys would come by and they’d have a live-in relationship for a short while. … Ella’s naiveté permeated her relations with men.”

One of her romances that ended up causing friction with Granz involved a Norwegian man whom she had met while touring Scandinavia with JATP. In July 1957, Reuters reported that she had married Thor Einar Larsen and was staying for the time being in a suburb of Oslo, a rumor she soon denied, although she indicated she might like to see it happen. She maintained an apartment in Copenhagen for four years. Granz, at her request, was working to help Larsen gain a visa to come to the United States. “Ella had called me from Europe, which she didn’t very often do, and said, ‘I’m in love.’ I think there came a point where Norman was losing patience with the man,” recalled Virginia Wicks, who was present backstage one night when the subject turned to Larsen. “There were words between Norman and Ella. I think that Norman realized before Ella did that Larsen was taking advantage of her. Norman tried to explain what was going on, and she was angry with him, saying, ‘You don’t run my life. You don’t run my personal life. You don’t know what goes on.’” As it turned out, Larsen had been convicted of defrauding a previous fiancée and had received five months’ hard labor in Sweden for his offense, so he was not even eligible to enter the United States for another five and a half years.

Phoebe Jacobs met Fitzgerald during the singer’s Decca period in the early 1950s and got to know her better over the next three decades at her uncle Ralph Watkins’ Basin Street East club in New York. “He ruled her life. I remember his buying her a sable coat, and Ella saying, ‘He bought it for me because he thought I should have one.’ Ella could have cared less whether or not she had a Rolls Royce. Norman saw to it she had one. He wanted her to have the best. She was his star.”

Jacobs, now president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, continued, “I don’t know whether Norman and Ella were a good pairing. It was truly a professional relationship. They didn’t socialize. Norman was never a great extrovert. Music was the common denominator. He treated her like she was a queen. He was dedicated to presenting her in the atmosphere she should enjoy befitting her talent. He was a very savvy guy and Ella respected and trusted him implicitly.” That trust and love would be the basis of a shared enterprise that would fill record bins and concert halls and create a legend.

Fitzgerald said as much in a brief undated telegram that caught up with Granz in Paris: “Even half asleep, I love and appreciate you. Thanks very much. Ella.”

*****

Excerpted with permission from Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice by Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University. To be released October 2011 from University of California Press.

Originally published in September 2011

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