Jazz Condition -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By KEN FRANCKLING, United Press International  |  Nov. 27, 2001 at 12:01 PM
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Norman Granz never played a note of music, at least in public, yet he was a significant orchestrator of jazz itself -- in his overlapping roles as a concert producer, promoter, artist manager and recording executive from the 1940s into the 1990s.

Granz died on Thanksgiving of complications from cancer at age 83 in Geneva, Switzerland, where he had lived for the past four decades.

He became the music's first impresario not long after he produced "Jammin' the Blues," a classic short jazz film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 1944. Later that year, he began a concert hall performance series called Jazz At The Philharmonic.

The first such event, on July 2, 1944 at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles, was held to raise funds for Mexican-American defendants who were jailed under questionable circumstances in the controversial Sleepy Lagoon "zoot suit riots" murder case.

The jam session-style format that he used for these concerts -- teaming the hottest soloists in jazz in a cutting-session atmosphere better associated with the honking blues sound of the R&B bar circuit -- caught on with the jazz public.

Soon, Granz was bringing his JATP players -- including pianist Nat King Cole, trombonist J.J. Johnson and tenor sax stars Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips and later, Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson -- to concert hall across North America and around the world.

From the beginning, Granz presented quality music in his own way. He set a new tone for the entertainment industry by demanding that there be no discrimination among musicians or within audiences.

Long before the civil rights movement became a focal point in America, Granz insisted his black and white artists be given the same preferential treatment as classical performers. He paid them union scale or better and refused to hold performances before segregated audiences -- even if it meant canceling a sold-out show.

By the 1950s, the series stretched seven months with up to 150 performances per tour across North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. Recordings that Granz made on those tours were the genesis for his founding of several successive record labels -- Clef, Norgran and Verve. The latter label, formed in 1956, has evolved under new ownership and direction into today's dominant jazz label.

As a record producer, he paired Charlie Parker with a string orchestra for the then controversial, now-classic "Bird With Strings" project.

He produced Ella Fitzgerald's acclaimed "Songbook" series of separate recordings in the 1950s and '60s featuring the music of America's great popular song composers: Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Those were followed in 1981 by her Antonio Carlos Jobim "Songbook" tribute for the Pablo label, which Granz founded in 1973.

The early "Songbook" projects moved Fitzgerald from a jazz singer to a popular music star.

"When Norman Granz produced the 'Songbook' albums, he took this great lady, who literally was dying on the vine, and made her the queen," said jazz festival producer George Wein. "She always was a queen, but Norman crowned her."

While a road-weary Granz sold Verve in 1961, stopped touring and settled in Switzerland, he continued to work as the personal manager for Fitzgerald and Peterson and scheduled international tours for other major artists.

In 1994, 50 years after Granz began his multi-faceted jazz career, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences offered him a "Grammy" award for lifetime achievement. Granz wouldn't accept it.

He was retired for the most part, living comfortably in Switzerland with his wife, Greta, and enjoying his renowned art collection. He had no interest in such fanfare. "I think you guys are a little late," he told the academy.

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