Norman Granz, who recorded and managed most of the greatest jazz artists of the mid-century, worked tirelessly to integrate performance venues and establish equality between black and white musicians, and at one time was regarded as the most powerful non-musician in jazz, died at his home in Geneva from complications due to cancer on Thursday. He was 83.
Born on Aug. 6, 1918, Granz grew up with his Ukrainian-Jewish family in the Los Angeles area. As a teenager, Granz began collecting jazz records. Soon, he fell in love with the music. Initially, Granz served in the Army Air Corps when America went to war in 1941, but he ended up in the Special Services Branch of the Army, putting on shows to entertain the nation’s troops.
After he received his final discharge from the military, Granz’s interest shifted from collecting jazz records to promoting jazz concerts. He had a day job as a film editor at MGM, but worked nights to negotiate agreements with club owners that would allow black and white audiences to sit together and appreciate great music.
In 1944, Granz put on the first of what would eventually be called “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts at the Philharmonic Auditorium, normally the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Teddy Wilson, Les Paul, Illinois Jacquet and a young Nat Cole were on hand to raise money for two Mexican youths wrongly convicted of murder. Soon, the concerts spread across the country, leaving thrilled audiences and lowered barriers in their wake. “The whole reason for Jazz at the Philharmonic was to take it to places where I could break down segregation,” Granz explained in Dizzy Gillespie’s book To Be or Not to Bop. In 1947, Granz told Down Beat that he lost $100,000 by refusing to play in segregated clubs; in 1954, Jazz at the Philharmonic had a turnover of $4 million, an astronomical sum in those days.
When a live recording of a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert – the first jazz concert recording ever issued – sold 150,000 records (by Granz’s estimation) for Asch Records, Granz was moved to found two record labels of his own: Clef, established 1946, and Norman, established 1953. These merged in 1956 into Verve Records, a label started primarily to showcase the talent of Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic roster in 1949, and Granz became her personal manager in 1953. It was Granz who encouraged her to essay the “Songbook” records, which brought Ella’s artistry to a wider audience than many had thought possible.
But Granz’s roster was not limited to Fitzgerald; over the years almost every major name in the period recorded for him, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson. “We would have less than half of the jazz music that we have today if it hadn’t been for Norman Granz,” said Virginia Wicks, a publicist with a longtime association with Granz. “Many of the people Norman recorded weren’t sellers but he said he wanted them to be heard.”
He was also widely respected by his musicians as both an impresario and a manager. “Norman Granz is the best manager that I know of, bar none,” said Oscar Peterson. “Forget about as a friend. Any level you want to argue on. You want to argue intelligence? Put him up against anyone you want to name. Name them, it doesn’t have to be in jazz. There isn’t anyone that I’ve seen, and I’ve met quite a few of the impresarios in the classical world, who has the intuitive creative sense about what an artist should be doing to further their creative importance.”
Granz is survived by his wife Greta.