Norman Granz has died in Geneva, aged 83. Here are some of the tributes paid him during his life as a jazz impresario.
Les Tomkins made the following interviews with Norman Granz in 1966 and 1967.
Interviews 1 2
It’s seven years since I last interviewed you, Norman. How would you say your activities have changed since then?
Well, I had three primary activities then. The first was my record company, Verve Records, the second was managing Ella Fitzgerald and the third was presenting my concerts with artists like Duke, Basie, Jazz At The Philharmonic and, of course, Ella. Now, my activities are confined to the latter two. That is, I still manage Ella—and also Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson. And I still give concerts. However, they’re primarily in Europe, and occasionally in Asia. But I no longer have the record company—I sold that in 1960.
The company was successful, and I had the chance to sell it for a lot of money. And, in view of the tax situation in America, it seemed best to do it as a complete sale, rather than keep running it. Also I think possibly that my juices needed restoring. I needed a sabbatical from the record business. Because I don’t think I was doing as much creative work as I did when I began making records. And I need that kind of self-satisfaction that comes from creation, as well as the economic successes.
How do you mean—not so creative?
Well, I pioneered in certain areas. 1 was the first, I think, to do live concert recording—back in 1943. It then became popular, and many other people did it. But for years Jazz At The Philharmonic albums were the only ones of their kind.
I was also the first to exploit fully the possibilities of LP, by having artists get away from the three-minute formula—which most of the first LP’s consisted of, twelve times over. I allowed artists to play for as long as they felt they could justifiably continue to create. And I was the first to do the spoken word with comedians like Shelly Berman, Mort Sahl and Jonathan Winters. These things gave me satisfaction, not only because they were ‘firsts’, but because I was contributing more than an ordinary businessman might, who simply owned a record company.
My function at Verve was that of a genuine producer in artists and repertoire. Even to the use of famous paintings on record covers by people like Matisse and Buffet. De luxe packaging—like the Fred Astaire album, which sold for one hundred dollars—that kind of thing. But finally—and especially since I was spending more and more time in Europe—I found that I was unable to do that. Then it became less interesting for me.
Why were you spending more time in Europe? Was this a matter of choice on your part?
Yes, I made my first trip to Europe in 1949. My parents are from Europe— they were born in Russia. I was the first member of my family to be born in America. But, after coming here on a holiday, I began coming back each year, for the promotion of my records. Then in 1951 I made the first of the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert tours, which continued each year thereafter. And I found myself spending a growing amount of time here. Finally, in 1958, I decided that I was going to live in Europe permanently. So in 1959 I moved to Lugano, Switzerland. Concurrent with that I sold the company.
Have you felt a definite physical benefit from this?
Well, I think that it’s more of an emotional satisfaction, rather than physical. I still travel a great deal. I go to the States, not for too long periods, but I make frequent trips because of my management problems with Ella. And I move about in Europe, because I still continue to do at least four concert tours a year, and in many cases, as many as six. No, I just find myself more at peace with myself and with my environment when I live in Europe. So I’m making that permanent.
Would you say you’re happiest in the concert field?
No, because I think managing an artist like Ella gives you two choices, as does running a record company. One is simply to manage her as any agent might normally do, and the other is creatively to contribute something. Apart from giving her the exposure on records, which was obvious, because I owned the company, there have been many areas in which I’ve been able, let’s say, to make a contribution to Ella’s point of view, and to the direction which she takes in her public activities. So that’s been satisfying. But, as far as concerts go, I don’t think I will ever do any tours again in the United States. I rather think that that’s over with.
For one thing, I don’t believe I could even put together a Jazz At The Philharmonic group as I like it and understand it to be—which is the jam session. Today it’s rare to find a major artist that would be willing to break up his own group. Not so much for economics, because I’m quite prepared to pay the leader of a quintet the same price that I would pay him for his entire group. But I think they need the musical security that their own groups give them.
Now there are obvious exceptions—people like Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie are quite prepared to do it. But then these are the same people that I did it with twenty years ago. Of the newer people that I would like to display to the public, I find it almost impossible to get them to agree to the jam session form.
I remember, years ago, when I was doing jazz concerts in America, though admittedly I would use the biggest names I could find, I still would find a place on each tour for a great artist that might be unknown. Like, Fats Navarro made a tour with me. And Monk made a tour with me in 1945—twenty-one years ago, before people ever heard of him. There were a lot of people like that, that I was in a position to display. But the new, younger artists today are too insecure to be willing to face that kind of musical competition afforded by the jam session.
Just to tour, let’s say, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington in America then becomes simply an economic problem, with none of the advantages that I find, and I think they find, too, of playing before different nationalities in different countries. To play today in London, next week in Madrid and the week after that in Warsaw is a bit better than playing Newark and Baltimore and Philadelphia. Obviously, I’ve been doing that for twenty years, as they have.
The economic picture in the States today doesn’t allow for jazz concerts in a tour fashion. The people now are too used to the occasional Festival which gives then, not necessarily more musical values, but, at least, quantitatively more names for the same price. And even then, the Festivals—let’s say at Newport—have to kick it up occasionally with a major pop figure like Frank Sinatra. Or by putting on a folk music afternoon, and things like that. But I understand the problems of economics here.
Do you think that, generally speaking, jazz appreciation has declined in the States?
Well, I never did know how people defined jazz as being or not being a big-selling item. The point is, I don’t think t hat it’s a growing item. And that’s more important than whether it’s big or small. I’m much more concerned with trend. And I don’t know where jazz fans will come from twenty years from now.
The younger people now are listening to a kind of pseudo blues or a modified pop music. As they get older, they’ll become bored with the sameness and the homogeneity of the kind of music they like as kids because it’s easy and it’s rhythmic. And even the lyric they may get tired of as they become older. Well, in that case, they may turn to popular music. But I don’t know where the roots will be sunk to enable them to grow into jazz fans. I don’t see how that can work.
I know that I had people come to my jazz concerts in 1946, who were then, let’s say, eighteen. Well, now they’re thirty-eight, but they still stick with my shows—depending, of course, on the artists. But I don’t know who’s eighteen years old today that, twenty years hence, is going to be a jazz fan. Certainly, if you look at my audiences, even in Europe, they’re hardly teenagers.
A sprinkling of teenagers may be attracted towards jazz. Many of the pop artists, using jazz arrangers, have indoctrinated them, almost unconsciously, to hearing a sound. Most of the average arrangers—say. Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Marty Patch or Frank DeVol—could hardly avoid jazz influence. Even Quincy Jones, who’s possibly more of a genuine jazz figure—when he writes for pop artists, he still falls back on jazz techniques. And so the public, hearing pop music is, without knowing it, also soaking up jazz—of a sort.
You find that in sound tracks, too. Many of the movie people, who would never have dreamt of using jazz arrangers or composers for scores are doing it frequently now, even though they water them down, of course. Still, the general public gets a taste of it. But that isn’t a firm enough foundation on which to build major tours, let’s say, for jazz artists.
Speaking of two of the artists you manage personally, have Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington reached the point today where their talents are receiving the maximum scope?
Ellington has the greater scope, because he’s a writer and arranger, as well as a musician and leader. He does movie sound tracks .and things like that. On the other hand, Ella can work night clubs that Duke might not be able to work, because of having the big band. But where they go now is strictly a matter of their own names and talents. I don’t think it’s because of their exposure on concert stages by me.
There’s one obvious area where there’s never sufficient chance or scope given to them at all—I speak of the United States primarily—and that’s in television. This is because of the prejudice that obtains in America against jazz and, in particular, against Negro artists, whether they be pop or jazz. You don’t find shows that will take them, other than possibly as guest artists, occasionally. But I don’t know of any networked jazz show that would use Negroes.
In fact, you don’t have any complete regular jazz shows of any kind on television in the States. Occasionally, there have been syndicated shows—that is, shows which played specific territories— that would run 30-minute shorts that were made years ago by different artists, and usually the ones that were more pop than jazz, like Nat ‘King’ Cole, let’s say. Some of these may still pop up. You must remember I don’t live in the States now, and I don’t keep up with it.
But I know the problems attendant to trying to convince a network to have a Duke Ellington or an Ella Fitzgerald show. As I say, the primary prejudice is colour, and the secondary one is the fact that they think that jazz wouldn’t go. And you can use any indices that you like to prove the contrary, but they just won’t give you the shots, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Well, I don’t say that the supposed Civil Rights development is a myth, but it’s a matter of dealing with reality. It’s purely peripheral and, in many cases, it’s—how shall I say?—just a facade. It really hasn’t cut across enough that the advertising agencies, the sponsors and the networks will really go all out and simply evaluate people on the basis of talent. And the basis of selling, of course, since they’re in business.
That isn’t peculiar to America, I might add. For example, in Germany, we just completed a very successful tour with Duke and Ella. And Germany, I would imagine, is probably the richest country in Western Europe. Yet they wouldn’t take any television with Duke and Ella, their reaction being that people weren’t interested in it. So it was an economic matter—they didn’t want to do it. Now, mind you, these are not sponsored shows. These are government-owned networks. But they still have their own peculiar rating system.
On the other hand, in the Scandinavian countries we’ve done television. In Sweden we did two one-hour shows. In Italy we did a show. Well, for that matter, even in England they’re not televising Duke and Ella, so there you are. Here’s the biggest show, possibly, that one could put together—and they don’t want it. I’m not reading in any reasons; I’m only telling you the facts.
Copyright © 1966, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved