Certainly one of the most important non musician in jazz history, Norman Granz always had a (intentionally) low public profile, despite major achievements amongst which the JATP, his major labels (Verve and Pablo), and his successes as an artist manager.
Beyond his producer career which made him one of the first jazz millionaire, Granz definitely should be remembered for bringing jazz out of the limiting circle of night clubs into mainstream, and for making Ella Fitzgerald (and a few others) a permanent star.
His early anti-racist actions as well were absolutely remarkable.
Boyz'n the jam
Born in South central Los Angeles, August 6, 1918 from a Ukranian-Jewish family who lost everything during the great depression, Granz made it through college, then wartime military service, before starting in the film industry as an editor for MGM.
Passionated with jazz, he managed to persuade Billy Berg (the Trouville Los Angeles club owner) to allow him to promote jam sessions on sunday nights and that the club entirely drops his segregationists "whites-only-audience" rules.
1944 saw him as a technical advisor on the Jammin' The Blues movie, directed by legendary photographer Gjon Mili, featuring Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Jo Jones, Archie Savage, Marlowe Morris, Big Sid Catlett, Red Callender and Marie Bryant, movie that would won an Academy Award for best short subject, and in which Granz obviously had a more important role than what the credits suggest.
Jam' at the Philharmonic
Later that year in July, he extended over the Trouville experience and managed to book the L.A. Philharmonic Auditorium as to promote and record a jam session.
The stellar line-up (Ray Brown, Sonny Criss, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Shelly Manne, Fats Navarro, Nat King Cole, Hank Jones, Flip Phillips and Tommy Turk) made this event a moment of history: for the first time, jam sessions (more generally jazz) were out the clubs' ghetto, held in institutionalized places, for a non segregated audience.
The JATP concerts (Jazz at the Philharmonic) would become an instant and huge success spreading across America, touring for over ten years 'till 1957 (then exported to Europe in the 60s) - a success financially (allowing Granz to give a start to his recording ambitions), musically (achieving public recognition for a genre that was referred to by critics as "cacophony"), and as an anti-racist permanent action (Granz would obtain many segregated places to open their seats to black people, and would systematically cancel the gigs if his de-segregation conditions were not met, regardless of revenue loss, going as far as cancelling sold-out shows and as in person removing the "whites"/"negros" labels applied on seats).
The Clef to success
Granz leased the first few live recordings made from the JATP events to Asch, then Disc, featuring cover art by David Stone Martin, but quickly realized the potential in releasing the stuff himself - which he soon started doing, creating the Clef label in 1946 on top of a distribution deal with Mercury, which (after the Keynote/Mercury merge) would eventually become the official Mercury jazz collection.
Shortly after the Mercury deal ended in 1953, he relaunched Clef as an independent (and self distributed) label, introduced the new Norgran line (as to shift a few artists from the overcrowded Clef) and bought Down Home (from Lu Watters) which he oriented toward traditional jazz (more accurately Granz literally overcome traditional jazz, signing almost everyone, from Red Allen to Bob Scobey, George Lewis, Kid Ory, Jack Teagarden, Turk Murphy, Joe Sullivan, Ralph Sutton).
While in parallel managing Ella Fitzgerald's career (at that time signed by Decca), he launched a last label in 1953, Verve Records, which he planned to use for more pop and easy listening oriented kind of jazz.
The Best Jazz is Played with Verve
1956 saw Granz having to deal with the distribution circuits demands - Verve was appealing, but not the "smaller" lines.
Consequently, and short after Ella arrival in the roster (the Decca deal ended), he decided to fold everything into Verve and regroup all his business assets.
The years following were instrumental: signing for success with Mel Tormé and Anita O'Day, then the explosive Duets and Songbooks series by Ella (the later being dedicated to the exploration of the Golden Age of American popular song), he continued to release such artists as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson (whom he'll eventually manage with nearly as much success as for Ella), Stan Getz, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and many others.
At the end of the decade, Granz relocated to Europe (1959) and only came in the US for short (enough) periods of time (to elude taxes). Short after, in 1961, he sold Verve to MGM for 3 millions dollars.
Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do
Dedicating himself to Peterson and Fitzgerald careers management, he continued to promote concerts while gaining interest into collecting modern art - most notably Pablo Picasso, possibly his favorite painter.
Probably the need to release records itched again at some point, and Granz started once more pressing small quantities under a new label which he named... Pablo. While nothing was available in stores before 1973, these records were sold by direct mail as early as 1971, making it somewhat hard to figure out exactly at what time exactly Granz' last label was founded.
In a dozen of years, he amassed over 400 new releases, including very important records by artists such as Coltrane, and of course Fitzgerald and Peterson, Gillespie, Basie, but also Joe Pass and Zoot Sims.
Signing Vaughan, he also released the first commercial version of Duke Ellington's The Queen's Suite.
"C" Jam Blues
Granz financial success didn't went without some stirs. His secrecy as well, along with his rather slackin' recording techniques and disdain for high-fi, and his sometimes controversial management strategies, made him a few enemies.
Critics (a sub-species for which he had no respect), with a (somewhat usual) absolute lack of flair, were never kind for what they considered under-achieving music.
When the dust finally settled down the groove, in 1994, long after he retired, the funny National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences decided to propose him a (non-sensical) "lifetime achievement award".
Granz simply declined it, politely: "I think you guys are a little late".
Probably Granz was just a man living by his own words: "Fight against racism, give listeners a good product, earn money from good music".
Loved by his contracted artists, he was the first to pay black artists the same price as whites, treating both with the same respect, paying both well above the average artist contract salary at the time.
Words with meaning.
Meaning enough to take prison for playing cards between two shows with Fitzgerald and Gillespie, or to stand against a policeman loaded pistol so that a white cabdriver takes black artists.
Words that stood, at a time so few were even thinking about it, not to mention action.
Not to mention jam.
Norman Granz died in Geneva, Switzerland, November 22 2001.