Spring Membership Drive 2024: We Look Back at Norman Granz's Legacy and Celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Jazz at the Philharmonic

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Spring Membership Drive 2024: We Look Back at Norman Granz's Legacy and Celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Jazz at the Philharmonic

The notoriously cantankerous jazz impresario founded jazz record labels Clef, Norgran, Verve, and Pablo, kept counsel with Pablo Picasso, and was the Machiavellian architect of perhaps the most socially conscious major concert series in history.

We can’t bring you back to the grand auditoriums that hosted installments of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, but we’ll come closer than anyone else.

By Matt Silver

This July 2nd will mark 80 years since Norman Granz presented the very first Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). So named because it was held at Los Angeles's Philharmonic Auditorium, then the 2700-seat home of the LA Phil, JATP was the first, the biggest, the longest running, and the most socially impactful jazz concert series of its kind.

Granz’s brainchild brought the world’s foremost jazz musicians to the grandest concert halls in North America, Europe, and Japan, often raised money to combat discrimination and double standards, and sold the old world and the new on the idea of jazz as high art. And not just jazz; jazz in its most natural and beautifully contradictory setting, the jam session: organic, free-flowing, democratic and community-oriented yet inherently competitive, intensely rivalrous, and ruthlessly meritocratic. 

The Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series and Norman Granz, the stubborn, determined, irascible, and relentlessly goal-oriented man who pulled the levers necessary to make it happen, are important to memorialize because of their discrete accomplishments and memorable musical and political triumphs. But they're also important to remember because the business of progress is a dirty one that sometimes calls for the type of single-minded leader who simply isn't very agreeable. "Good vibes only" is not how Norman Granz utilized jazz as a means of combating the racial discrimination he witnessed and the anti-semitism he experienced firsthand. He had character flaws and personality quirks and was probably not very nice to some people who didn't deserve it. He was unabashed about the fact that he was a capitalist and in business to turn a profit, telling Downbeat in 1952, "I’ve never tried to prove anything except that good jazz, properly presented, could be commercially profitable.” And yet, he was just as adamant telling his biographer Tad Hershorn, “Any book on my life would start with my basic philosophy of fighting racial prejudice. I loved jazz, and jazz was my way of doing that.”

David Stone Martin, along with all of the musicians on the gig, signed a copy of "Jazz at The Philharmonic, Vol. 1" for Granz, and DSM drew this caricature of Granz and left a funny message about Granz's prickly personality.

Interestingly, he was almost dictatorial in his insistence that jazz be done democratically. He wore his impudence in the face of wrongheaded authority as a badge of honor and was proud of his results. “I give people in Des Moines and El Paso the kind of jazz they could otherwise never see or hear,” he told a reporter in the 1950s. Like his close friend Pablo Picasso, he was an original. His work was important and consequential, and he created venues and record labels that treated musicians fairly and allowed them to flourish, to work with dignity, and receive the appreciation of sincere audiences.

That's why we’re dedicating this year’s Spring Membership Drive to celebrating the legacy of Norman Granz and his most impactful contributions at the intersection of musicianship and civil rights — because he insisted that his musicians be treated with the same respect as Leonard Bernstein or Jascha Heiftitz. Why? Because, Granz said, “they were just as good, both as men and musicians.”

Over the course of our Spring Membership Drive — beginning Friday, April 5 and lasting through Sunday, April 14 — you’ll hear more of the extant Jazz at the Philharmonic catalog than you’ve ever heard before. You’ll hear the recordings officially released by Clef, Norgran, Verve, and Pablo — Granz’s record labels — and you’ll hear Jazz at the Phil recordings that, to this point, have never been released to the public.

Who are we talking about? Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Illinois Jacquet, Nat King Cole, Les Paul, J.J. Johnson, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Lester and Lee Young, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Flip Phillips, Red Callender, Barney Kessel, Sarah Vaughan, Buddy DeFranco, and more than you can even imagine. You’ll hear combinations of superheroes who rarely, if ever, teamed up outside of these settings. 

The best part of what we do here at KSDS, if I may be so bold as to speak on behalf of the entire ballclub, is that we appeal not just to the ears, but to as many of the senses as good taste and applicable local rules and regs permit. But since we're forward thinking arts people and all that, we figure our audience would share our enthusiasm for pairing maximally cool music with maximally cool art. Doing both at the same time is the most surefire way to ensure you and those you care about are doing cool correctly. That's why much of the aforementioned chazerai will make more than passing visual reference to the brilliant art long associated with most everything Granz produced.

One of the hallmarks of Jazz at the Philharmonic were the saxophone battles. More often than not Flip Phillips was one of the tenor saxophonists engaged in these duels; Phillips was one of the constants on JATP programs in the 1940s and ’50s. He recorded extensively for the Granz-owned Dial label. Here’s one of his Granz-produced sides for Mercury. Cover art by who else but David Stone Martin.

If David Stone Martin's name isn't a name you're familiar with, ask your most with-it friend, and if they don't know they'll probably pretend that they do. Granz commissioned DSM to design a significant percentage of the album cover and program art for projects he and his record labels oversaw. In the small corners of the world where the correct opinions about jazz are of the utmost importance, his work is nothing short of iconic. Seriously, it's all awesome stuff, and all the stuff we're giving away will make you the envy of your friends, plus make the music sound better.

And you know we love to put together live membership events that bring the music and musicians we bring you over the airwaves to life. We’re planning something BIG for this summer — a live music spectacular of Granzian proportions, something the great cantankerous man himself would’ve been proud to present. This, in addition of course, to the usual run of pledge drive goodies — CD box-sets, custom tee-shirts, posters, totes, coasters, beach towels, and all manner of chazerai — that you’ve come to expect in exchange for allowing us to appeal to your finely tuned ears, your newly found sense of graphic design sophistication, and, most crucially, your charitable, jazz-loving hearts.

Call me crazy, but I think this would be one helluva smart look for an oversized beach towel. Summer’s right around the corner. Maybe throw this in a KSDS commemorative tote and book it to the beach or pool? Don’t forget a phone to stream the KSDS mobile app while you catch some rays. Cover art by David Stone Martin.

Join us as we revisit Norman Granz and Jazz at the Philharmonic throughout our 2024 Spring Membership Drive. Friday, April 5 through Sunday, April 14th. It's all right here on KSDS Jazz 88.3 FM in San Diego and streaming throughout the Wi-Fi'd world at jazz88.org or via the KSDS mobile app on that thing in your pocket you're addicted to.

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