Jazz at 100 Hour 45: Norman Granz and Verve Records

Ella and Louis

In July 2, 1944, Norman Granz, a jazz fan and small-time LA promoter staged a concert in the Philharmonic Auditorium with $300 of borrowed money. His “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts were hugely successful and became tours that ran until 1957. These tours and the record labels they spawned – Clef, Norgran and especially Verve – became home to many of the great players of the 1950s, often mainstream players who had a lot of music left to play, but were not necessarily at the cutting edge of the rapidly evolving music. The availability of this music played a key role in building a market for the continued appreciation of mainstream players like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster and Art Tatum.

Jazz at the Philharmonic and Billie Holiday
The first JATP concert set the stage for the years to follow: top flight players – regardless of jazz style – often in a jam session format, well paid, travelling comfortably and playing only to integrated audiences. This was a revolutionary formula, one that perhaps has never been replicated.

One of the key beneficiaries of Granz’s sponsorship was Billie Holiday, who toured with JATP and finished her career as a Verve artist. Two and a half years before her death in 1959, Holiday recorded a classic of her late career, “Songs for Distingue Lovers”.

In describing Billie Holliday’s 1957 Verve release, Ben Ratliff writes, “There is still resilience in Holiday’s voice, even if the higher register is gone and if, when she drops down low, it sounds like a muffler scraping against the road… Norman Granz … gave her an appropriate context: a sextet with Harry “Sweets” Edison, who was already a prince of understatement and concise melodic thinking, and Ben Webster, who had played with her as early as 1937 and had refined his own playing to heavy breath and melody… There is nostalgia here: the album includes ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ which Holiday recorded with Webster at the 1937 session, and Webster gets to take the solo that he couldn’t twenty years earlier, when Roy Eldridge had surged to the lead position.” – Ben Ratliff

Bugle Call Rag. Jazz At The Philharmonic
(Shorty Sherock-tp, Illinois Jacquet-ts, Jack McVea-ts, Nat “King” Cole-p, Les Paul-g, Red Callender-b, Johnny Miller-b, Lee Young-d). 7/2/1944

Trav’lin’ Light. Jazz at the Philharmonic
(Howard McGhee-tp, Trummy Young-tb, Illinois Jacquet-s, Ken Kersey-p, Charly Drayton-b, Jack Mills-d, Billie Holiday-voc). 10/7/1946

I Wished on the Moon. Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra
(Harry “Sweets” Edison-tp, Ben Webster-ts, Jimmy Rowles-p, Barney Kessel-g, Red Mitchell-b, Alvin Stoller-d, Billie Holiday-voc). From Songs For Distingue Lovers. 1/3/1957

The Tenors – Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins
While providing a home for tenor players Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt and Flip Phillips, Granz also recorded all three of the original giants of the tenor in their later years – Lester Young, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins.

“Ben Webster, often identifiable by a single, signature note, played jazz like few other musicians ever have. As he got older and less partial to any tempo above a very slow lope, he pared his manner back to essentials which still, no matter how often one hears them, remain uniquely affecting. Sometimes, all he does is play the notes of a melody, in a time that is entirely of his own choosing, and still he makes it uniquely absorbing.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Tenderly. Ben Webster Quintet
(Ben Webster-ts, Oscar Peterson-p, Herb Ellis-g, Ray Brown-b, Alvin Stoller-d). From King of the Tenors. 12/8/1953

Ill Wind. Coleman Hawkins Quintet
(Coleman Hawkins-ts, Oscar Peterson-p, Herb Ellis-g, Ray Brown-b, Alvin Stoller-d). From Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. 10/16/1957

The Pianists – Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.
Understanding that Art Tatum might be coming to the end of his playing career in 1953, Norman Granz recorded him on solo piano in four marathon sessions in a little over a year. Tatum’s extraordinary achievement resulted in the release of 11 LPs in the series “The Genius of Art Tatum. “He still chooses Broadway tunes over any kind of jazz material and seems to care little for formal emotional commitments: a ballad is just as likely to be dismantled as it is to be made to evoke tenderness, while a feeble tune such as ‘Taboo’ … may be transformed into something that communicates with great power and urgency.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Taboo. Art Tatum solo.
(Art Tatum-p). From The Genius of Art Tatum #5. 12/29/1953

Jitterbug Waltz. Art Tatum solo.
(Art Tatum-p). From The Genius of Art Tatum #6. 12/28/1953
“In the first chorus a beautiful counter-melody appears in the left hand, along with the Waller-like triplets and trills. The chorus also is a masterful example of Tatum’s rubato (which means ‘robbing the beat’), for he sustains a feeling of tempo even though the beat seems to be made of rubber. Overall, there is a quiet reflective, spacious quality to this performance that Tatum did not often display on recordings.” – Dick Katz from the notes to Jazz Piano – A Smithsonian Collection

The Canadian pianist, Oscar Peterson, began recording in the US with Granz in 1950 and they stuck together for three and a half decades. Along the way, in addition to countless trio dates, Peterson’s combo formed the rhythm section for more than 30 of Granz’s recording dates some years. Perhaps his strongest release was Night Train in 1961, dedicated to his father, who was a sleeping-car attendant on Canadian Pacific Railways. “Though by no means a ‘concept album’, it’s one of the best-constructed long-players of the period and its durability is testimony to that as much as to the quality of Peterson’s playing, which is tight and uncharacteristically emotional.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

Georgia on My Mind. Oscar Peterson Trio
(Oscar Peterson-p, Ray Brown-b, Ed Thigpen-d). From Night Train. 12/15/1962
“Throughout his career, Oscar Peterson wore the heavy mantle of being cited as heir and successor to Art Tatum as the greatest virtuoso of modern jazz piano. This is a daunting and dubious honor, akin to being known as the fastest gunslinger in a town of trigger-happy rivals. But Peterson’s command of the keyboard was beyond reproach and established him as the most famous among the handful of post-Tatum jazz players.” – Ted Gioia

The Singers – Ella and Louis.
While Ella Fitzgerald was, like Oscar Peterson, managed by Norman Granz, recording exclusively for his labels from 1956 through the end of her recording career in the mid-1980s, Louis Armstrong made only a brief stop with Verve. “The result was a series of discs from 1956 and 1957 that stand with the best of Armstrong’s massive catalog. Finally, Louis was teamed with musical peers of his own calibre in relaxed, swinging sessions that showcased his increasingly solid singing and mellow blowing. The sessions with Ella Fitzgerald still blaze with the glow of two topnotch masters; the two albums they shared are liberally peppered with classic renditions of some of Pops’ greatest standards. The Oscar Peterson Trio provided all the backing these two needed, resulting in the cleanest sound of any of Louis’ records– Michal Minn in the online “Louis Armstrong Discography”

“Louis’s was an art of many contraries, aside from the bass/tenor voice and lion-growl sound that still spelled so much pussycat sweetness. His trumpet calls out in a royal contralto voice … that is as clear as his singing voice is scratchy. Only the phrasing and the spirit of joi de vivre let you know that both the voice and horn belong to the same genius. After the trumpet solo, he re-enters for a last vocal, trading phrases with the ensemble and building to a sky-high fireworks of scatted phrases at the songs climax.” – Robert O’Meally from the notes to The Jazz Singers

Top Hat, White Tie, And Tails. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong with Russell Garcia and Orchestra . From Louis Under The Stars. 8/14/1957

“Ella first recorded ‘Don’t Be That Way’ with Chick Webb’s band, which performed it in the mid-30s battles-of-the-bands at the Savoy Ballroom, where she and Chick ruled the roost. For the mid-career version heard here, her voice has the slightest rasp, which gives its usual luminesce an earthy allure. Her phasing indicates her strong inventive powers … and sets the stage for Louis, whose gritty flesh-and-blood sound contrasts with her more airy approach. These two trade phrases in a way that would convert the lowliest of sinners to their high church of jazz.” – Robert O’Meally from the notes to The Jazz Singers

Don’t Be That Way. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong with Oscar Peterson Quartet
(Oscar Peterson-p, Herb Ellis-g, Ray Brown-b, Buddy Rich-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc, Louis Armstrong-voc). From Ella and Louis. 8/16/1956

Air Mail Special. Ella Fitzgerald Quartet
(Don Abney-p, Wendell Marshall-b, Jo Jones-d, Ella Fitzgerald-voc). From Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport. 7/4/1957

Granz sold Verve Records to MGM in 1960 and started a new label, Pablo, in 1973. Pablo continued to focus on what was, by then, an aging collection of artists, including Fitzgerald. He finally sold Pablo in 1987 and retired from the record business. Granz may well be the most successful jazz impresario of all time.

Songs from what came to be known as the Great American Songbook, have been part of jazz perhaps since The Original Dixieland Jazz Band began recording Irving Berlin compositions. With the advent of the Long Playing record, the idea of recording whole LPs dedicated to the work of a specific songwriter or songwriting team took off, initiated by Ella Fitzgerald on Verve. In the next hour we will explore songbook sets focused on the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Lerner and Loewe.

Recordings.
Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 0391.
The Jazz Singers – A Smithsonian Collection. Sony Music RD 113.
Jazz At The Philharmonic, Vol. 5. Mercury MG 35006
Lady In Autumn: The Best Of The Verve Years. Verve 849434-2 2CD
Billie Holiday. Songs for Distingue Lovers. Verve MGV 8329
Lester Young. The Pres-Ident Plays With The Oscar Peterson. Norgran MGN 1054
Ben Webster. King of the Tenors. Norgran MGN 1001
Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster. Verve MGV 8327
Art Tatum. The Genius of Art Tatum, Vol. 5. Clef MGC 618
Art Tatum. The Genius of Art Tatum, Vol. 6. Clef MGC 618
Oscar Peterson. Night Train. Verve V/V6 8538
Louis Armstrong. Louis Under the Stars. Verve MGV 4012
Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong. Ella and Louis. Verve MGV 4006-2
Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport. Verve MGV 8234

Resources.

Giddins, Gary & DeVeaux, Scott. 2009. JAZZ. New York, NY. WW Norton & Company.
Chapter 9. A World of Soloists
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 13. Coleman Hawkins (Patriarch)
Chapter 55. Rousing Rabble (JATP)
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 5 – The Swing Era
Chapter 6 – Modern Jazz
Hershorn, Tad. 2011. Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice. Berkeley. University of California Press.
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Lady In Autumn: The Best Of The Verve Years
Lester Young. The Pres-Ident Plays With The Oscar Peterson Trio
Ben Webster. King of the Tenors
Art Tatum. The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces
Oscar Peterson. Night Train
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 44. Billie Holiday: Songs for Distingue Lovers (1957)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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