The Nonpareil Norman Granz

On November 1, Oscar Peterson accepted for Norman Granz a “Lifetime Achievement Award” presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center. Granz, who lives in Switzerland, could not be present. Peterson recalled Granz, during one of his jazz tours, “standing his ground at the Houston airport when the sheriff pulled his gun from his holster and jammed it into Norman’s stomach, while telling him how he hated him more than he hated blacks because he was insisting that Ella Fitzgerald be allowed to ride in a ‘white cab.'”

I’ve known Norman Granz for almost 50 years. As a journalist, I’ve covered all kinds of people-from Dizzy Gillespie to Supreme Court justices. Dizzy was a lot more knowledgeable about justice in America than some of the high court jurists. But Norman Granz was the most stubborn, brusque and fiercely principled person I’ve ever known, and I greatly value his friendship.

In Dizzy’s book, To Be or Not to Bop, Norman said: “The whole reason for Jazz at the Philharmonic was to take it to places where I could break down segregation and discrimination.” That he did, and not only in the South. He also insisted, wherever his tours played anywhere in the world, that the musicians “be treated with the same respect as Leonard Bernstein or Heifetz because they were just as good, both as men and musicians.”

“With Norman,” Clark Terry told me, “everything was first-class. The travel, the hotels, everything. He had deep pockets. The other promoters had short pockets.” Dizzy Gillespie once showed me a watch that was so impressive it ought to have been on exhibit. “It was at the end of a tour,” Dizzy said, “and everything had gone well. He gave me the watch, just like that.”

A business man certainly, Granz was a jazz fan first. He recorded musicians he liked, and I expect that the profits from his tours helped subsidize a good many of his recording sessions. For years, when jazz record sales were flagging while rock and, for a time, fusion were on the ascendant, Granz recorded Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, “Sweets” Edison, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and other musicians beyond category, when the big labels were not interested.

I saw him once after he’d come from a sales meeting at an outfit that was distributing his recordings. Still angry, he told me of a salesman who had told him he ought not record Tommy Flanagan again because his trio set on Norman’s Pablo label had only sold 1,500 copies. “Damn it,” Norman snapped at the salesman, “If 1,500 people want to hear Tommy Flanagan, they have a right to!” And Norman stormed out of the meeting.

During a jazz tour of the Soviet Union, a reporter for Izvestia asked Norman which musician most completely defines the essence of jazz. Instantly, Norman said: “Roy Eldridge. He’s a musician for whom it’s more important to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak-even if he falls on his ass in the attempt-than it is to play safe. That’s what jazz is all about.” That’s what Norman Granz was all about-from his ground-breaking 1944 jazz film, Jammin’ the Blues, to his making it hard for listeners to think in terms of narrow categories when he paired musicians of a wide range of styles and backgrounds in his Jazz at the Philharmonic tours.

He refused to be a marquee presence on stage. At his concerts, he’d come out quickly, name the musicians, and go off just as fast. But off stage, he was indeed formidable. Granz told me of how he and his musicians conquered racist Houston in the 1950s. After renting the auditorium, he said, “I’d hire the ticket seller and tell him there was to be no more segregation whatsoever. Well, that was new for Houston. I removed the signs that said “white toilets” and “negro toilets.” That was new. The ticket seller was a Texan and I knew he didn’t have eyes to do what I’d asked him to do, but he was getting paid, so he had to.”

And Norman was always on the scene to make sure that things were being done as he had ordered. Back then, there were white ticket buyers who were suddenly startled and indignant to discover that they were going to be seated next to a black person. When they protested, the promoter, Mr. Granz, appeared, and told them: “You sit where I sit you. You don’t want to sit next to a black, here’s your money back.”

There ought to be a book about Norman, and James (Tad) Hershorn is on the way. He’s already written Let Freedom Swing: Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1944-1957, which won him a master of arts degree from George Mason University. Hershon is now the archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, and he’s talking to Norman, gathering more information on a man whose lifetime is filled with achievements.