Had he accomplished just one of the following—creating and promoting the game-changing Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series; launching the Clef, Norgran and Verve labels; managing and helping to popularize Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson; producing hundreds of landmark recordings; championing African-American equality and fighting racism and segregation within the music industry—Norman Granz would have been a singular figure in jazz history. That Granz (1918-2001) did all of that is nothing short of remarkable.
Simply put, jazz would not have followed the same trajectory without Norman Granz. This new four-disc compilation chiefly celebrates the music released by the three labels that he put on the map, with one all-star selection after another, 44 in all. But it’s also a fitting tribute to the man himself.
Granz saw jazz musicians as “marvelous crucibles,” Tad Hershorn, author of Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, writes in his superb liner notes. Granz made it his life’s work to present those musicians, with dignity, to a larger and more diverse audience. Both onstage, via the highly successful traveling Jazz at the Philharmonic uber-jams, and in the studio, Granz insisted that jazz be treated with the respect he saw accorded to classical music. Furthermore, he vowed that black musicians would not be treated as second-class citizens; no show he sanctioned would play to a segregated room.
That respect is palpable within the recordings Granz released. The first of them, the 1942-54 Mercury/Clef sides that occupy the first two discs in the set, feature numerous familiar names, albeit not always in familiar settings. A triptych of jumpers—accredited to Dexter Gordon, Nat “King” Cole, and Charlie Parker—opens the collection. Cole, teamed in 1944 with Les Paul and Illinois Jacquet, pushes as hard on the generically titled “Blues” as anything that would be called rock & roll in the following decade; a couple of years later, Bird, with Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Buddy Rich in tow, elevates “I Got Rhythm” to a stark, raving wild slab of pre-R&B dance music.
The music calms down soon enough, with Granz’s reach extending as far afield as a pair of surprisingly soulful tracks spotlighting Fred Astaire, tapping on the first to Oscar Peterson’s accompaniment on “Ad Lib (Slow Dances).” By the time Granz shifted his operation to Norgran and then Verve—the most successful of his labels, it survives him today—and a roster that encompassed Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Lionel Hampton, and (eventually) the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lee Konitz, and Gerry Mulligan, his artistic touch was unfailingly golden. The priceless duets of Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong are represented here by only a single track, “Can’t We Be Friends” (1956), and naturally it’s as sweet as can be (while also displaying fidelity that’s vastly improved over the earlier recordings).
There’s also a single entry from Stan Getz: Rodgers and Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” from 1957, shortly after Verve’s formation. The tenor saxophonist works on the live recording with Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Connie Kay—as solid a lineup as any Granz recorded. Getz’s dry yet sensual sound is already in place on the ballad, a sound that would become ubiquitous in the coming years as Getz discovered Brazilian bossa nova and made Verve a mint. By that time, Norman Granz had retired and sold the company, but his legacy was firmly in place.