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Norman Granz, 83; Visionary of the Jazz World Was Producer, Promoter and Social Conscience


Impresario Norman Granz, who set the agenda for the business of jazz through most of the 20th century by producing legendary recordings and making the music accessible to a wider audience, has died. He was 83.

Granz died Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, of complications from cancer, according to Virginia Wicks, an L.A.-based publicist who had a long association with Granz.

A native of Los Angeles whose family lost much of its wherewithal in the Depression, Granz became an astute businessman who made a fortune from the music he grew to love as a young man collecting records in Boyle Heights.

Armed with a unyielding social conscience, a discerning ear and a hard-nosed take-it-or-leave-it approach to business, Granz is credited by many historians with bringing first-rank jazz performers in integrated bands into concert halls across America through a series called Jazz at the Philharmonic.

"Granz was a true visionary, plain and simple--as a manager, a producer and a promoter," said jazz critic Don Heckman. "Today, at a time when marketing and promotion are an intrinsic part of the jazz world, it's hard to contextualize what a visionary he was. A half-century ago, when bebop's primary appeal was to a relatively small niche of dedicated fans, Granz dramatically expanded the audience for what was a seemingly difficult music, both domestically and internationally, via his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts."

Decades before the most productive days of the civil rights movement, Granz helped end the two-track system in which white players generally earned far more than blacks. He paid his performers equally and so would anyone who hired them through him. In Granz's world, there also was no discrimination in dining or accommodations for his musicians on the road. If the face of bigotry came up at a concert, he canceled the performance. It happened more than once.

Granz, who was of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry, "made a statement that went beyond jazz," said Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University who is writing a biography of the impresario. "He held the U.S. accountable for the notion of freedom. and he did this years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball."

At one time or another, Granz recorded most of the major names in jazz on the four labels that he owned--Clef, Norgran, Verve and Pablo. His roster was a who's who of the genre, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson.

He also was a manager. He is credited with making Fitzgerald a far more accessible performer by expanding her repertoire through the "Song Book" series, featuring the work of most of the master composers of American song. He presented Peterson in his first major U.S. appearance--at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1949, and generally directed the pianist's career.

In recording those great names in jazz, Granz amassed an enormous catalog of music, much of it still in demand today as the lifeline of an industry that in later generations lost much of its commercial and popular appeal.

Born on Aug. 6, 1918, Granz initially lived in South-Central Los Angeles, not far from what in later years was a happening jazz scene on Central Avenue. But the family moved to Long Beach not long after Granz was born to be closer to the department store that his father owned.

The family business was lost during the early years of the Depression and the Granzes ended up in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. Young Granz went to Roosevelt High School and UCLA, taking a minor job in a brokerage house to finance his education.

Demanded Equal Rights for Black Club Patrons

During World War II, Granz served in the Army Air Corps and then the special services branch of the Army, which was charged with entertaining the troops. After receiving his final discharge, Granz had a succession of odd jobs before finding work as a film editor at MGM.

His interest in jazz had started in the 1930s as a minor hobby collecting records. But by the time he came out of the military, he was interested in promoting the music.

"Black musicians were playing all over Los Angeles in the early '40s," Granz recalled years later, "but almost entirely to white audiences. This was because there were very few places that welcomed blacks as patrons. I was particularly aware of this because in addition to my day job as a film editor at MGM I [had] been putting on occasional jam sessions at the Trouville Club in the Beverly Fairfax area. One day Billie Holiday came to me and complained that Billy Berg, who owned the club, wouldn't admit some of her black friends."

Granz offered Berg a proposal. He wanted to promote Sunday night, which under existing union rules was a night off for the club's regular musicians, as a jam session. Granz told Berg he would assure him a good crowd of paying customers, but he added some conditions.

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