Three singular personalities have been responsible for much of what we now take for granted in jazz in the last hundred years in recordings and public performance: John Hammond, George Wein, and Norman Granz.
Hammond wrote his own somewhat mythic autobiography and was the subject of a tepid posthumous biography. Wein, the only member of the trio still with us, has an expansive autobiography. Granz, who died in 2001, discouraged efforts to write his story until journalist and jazz scholar Tad Hershorn entered his life. And Hershorn’s biography of Granz is a substantial accomplishment.
A book on Granz as record producer (for fifty years) would have been intriguing in itself, for even though Granz alternated between being controlling and negligent, he recorded Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Holiday, Young, Webster, Tatum, Parker, Gillespie, O’Day, Getz, Hampton, Wilson, Konitz, Hawkins, Eldridge, Rich, Peterson, Ellington, Basie . . . The sessions are uneven, but the energy animating them is undeniable, and the successes are memorable. Imagine a jazz cosmos without JATP, Norgran, Clef, Verve, Pablo.
Another book might have chronicled Granz the concert promoter — the inventor of Jazz at the Philharmonic, the model for many concerts to come after its inception in the early Forties. (Who else would have Louis, Ella, and Tatum on the same bill?)
And there might have been another book concerning Granz as friend-of and sometimes enemy-of: his relations with Picasso, with Sinatra, Ellington, Peterson, Fitzgerald, among others, are intriguing windows into his character and theirs, providing both inspiring and acrimonious anecdotes.
But the narrative Hershorn chose to tie these stories together is Granz’s vehement, unwavering vision of jazz as a racially integrated music played in public for integrated audiences. Younger (or more idealistic) readers may be startled by the historical information that emerges in the first fifteen years of Granz’s years as a concert promoter: yes, there were drinking fountains for “colored” and “white,” as well as restaurants that did not serve anyone appropriately light-skinned. Granz, who often appears to be someone indifferent to social grace, an abrasive, self-righteous and self-absorbed figure, comes through as a heroic figure who made it possible for “mixed” audiences to sit together and to hear American music (a struggle, I must point out, that he didn’t originate — although he continued it valiantly).
Hershorn’s book is the result of fifteen years of work on the subject, including a number of in-person interviews of an ailing (although still acerbic) Granz. The book is thoroughly researched — some forty pages of footnotes, a chronology, an extensive bibliography, rare photographs. The book has no competition, and he has spoken with people who knew Granz — from publicist Virginia Wicks to Peterson to Quincy Jones and Nat Hentoff — so this book has a freshness many other jazz biographies lack because the important sources are long dead.
But Granz — energetic, willful, moving quickly — is a difficult subject because he is always in motion. Occasionally Hershorn’s chronological organization (with extended considerations of important musicians and friends) seems like an airport walkway, efficient but constraining. At times the mere data seems overwhelming: during the JATP period, we learn about every concert tour — the players, itinerary, gross receipts. A biographer should fall in love with the material, and is writing both for the contemporary audience and for future generations who may use the book as an invaluable research tool. But some of this material might have profitably been placed in an appendix, unless it was needed for the dramatic arc of the story.
Granz’a extended career and long active life — I would not have wished it otherwise — also pose problems for a biographer properly intent on showing him an unacknowledged civil rights pioneer. Once Granz can be sure that the local police won’t attempt to plant drugs on his musicians; once they can stay at the best hotels; once there is no restriction on who can sit where in the audience, much of the air goes out of the book. Once the battle has been won, Granz can go on being a wealthy businessman, an art collector, friends with Picasso, playing tennis. To be fair, this diminuendo is often the inevitable pattern of biographies: when the book is focused on its subject’s struggle towards a goal, what happens to the biography once that goal is achieved?
But overall the book is a fine one. Hershorn has managed his relationship to his subject with great grace. Some biographers loathe their subject and crow over errors of judgment, meanness of spirit. Others adore their subjects and make excuses for bad behavior. Hershorn is careful, accurate, and fair, permitting us to applaud what Granz made possible even if we find the man unpleasant. Hershorn is also a clear writer, although too fond of casual cliche — “the red carpet treatment,” “made no bones about it,” “wined and dined” — for me, but this will not bother others. And in an era where large, detailed books are becoming more and more rare, to have published this one is a remarkable accomplishment.
If occasionally the reader tires of Granz, the book can be put aside for a day. Or one might listen to a half-hour of Pres and Teddy, Ben Webster with strings, Billie Holiday with Jimmy Rowles, or one of the Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks. For those masterpieces, one would forgive Granz anything.