Born on August 6, 1918, in Los Angeles, California, to immigrant parents, Norman Granz went on to establish himself as a promoter of jam-fueled jazz concerts in prestigious settings where segregation among audience members was not tolerated. Having managed the career of greats like Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, Granz also established the label Verve in the mid-1950s, thus creating a premier home base for a variety of jazz artists. He died on November 22, 2001, in Geneva, Switzerland.
Norman Granz was born on August 6, 1918 in Los Angeles, California. His parents were Jewish-Ukrainian immigrants who faced hard times trying to run a department store that eventually was forced to close during the Great Depression. Granz developed a love for jazz during his teens and had befriended the brother of saxophonist Lester Young, which gained him access to his jam sessions and deepened his passion for the music. Granz served briefly in the Army Air Corps during World War II before returning to the states to attend the University of California at Los Angeles, where he studied philosophy.
During his sophomore year, Granz convinced Billy Berg, manager of the Trouville Club, to stage a jazz concert, with the stipulations that the audience would be racially integrated—the club generally had a whites-only policy—and that the audience would be seated and attentively listen to the music rather than dance. The concert was a hit, and Granz embarked on a career of promoting and staging jazz concerts in a distinctive, innovative format where the genre’s performers were given the same respect and settings granted classical musicians.
In July 1944, Granz organized a concert at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium that featured Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, J. J. Johnson, Les Paul and Lester Young, among others, with the event ultimately selling out. Serving also as a fundraiser for the local Mexican community, the concert boasted jam sessions with prominent sax solos, and thus the Jazz at the Philharmonic concept was born, with Granz using the title to promote concerts that toured through various parts of the country, with the ongoing stipulation that segregation would not be allowed during the events. Granz's efforts helped segments of the entertainment world set the stage for the broader Civil Rights movement to come.
Granz was also the founder of several music labels during the course of his career, most importantly, Verve, founded in 1956, which was a consolidation of his labels Clef and Norgran. With an initial emphasis on live performance, Verve quickly developed into a powerhouse that boasted some of jazz’s greatest acts, with Granz acting as producer on some of its finest records.
Granz also managed the careers of Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson and singer Ella Fitzgerald, with the latter being a primary inspiration for the formation of Verve. Granz came up with the idea for Fitzgerald to do her famed Song Book series, in which she created whole albums with songwriting luminaries of the day, including Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and George and Ira Gershwin. Though Granz was described as a sometimes abrasive figure, he nonetheless earned a reputation for being honest and generous with musicians when it came to earnings and thus inspired great loyalty.
Later Years and Death
In 1960 Granz sold Verve to MGM—where he had previously worked as a film editor—and moved to Geneva, Switzerland to promote his Philharmonic concerts abroad. He also began to promote acts who fell outside of jazz's purview before returning to jazz in the early 1970s, when he founded Pablo Records, naming the enterprise in honor of his friend Pablo Picasso, whose art he adored. Granz eventually sold the label in 1987.
In the mid-1990s, the National Academy of Recording Arts tried to give Granz a lifetime achievement award, but he declined the honor, stating that the organization was somewhat late with its accolades. Norman Granz died on November 22, 2001, from complications related to cancer and was survived by his wife, Greta. Jazz scholar Ted Hershorn's biography Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice was published in 2011.
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