The fine new four CD collection (and Tidal stream) called Norman Granz: The Founder celebrates the life and impact of this legendary Jazz producer and impresario. Arguably one of the most important figures in jazz and popular music as we know it today, Granz almost singlehandedly challenged music industry convention, championing African American artists at a time when they were both disrespected and exploited as well as pushing boundaries for new musical forms.
As "modern jazz" as we know it today evolved out of the Big Band "swing" era, Granz was there supporting new voices emerging from the post World War II music world of Jazz and its numerous off shoots Be Bop, Latin and other streams. Via his record labels Clef, Norgran and eventually Verve, Granz helped shape the face of Jazz and popular music, even as we know it today.
Norman Granz: The Founder was quietly released in December of 2018 and it is a fine sounding collection of recordings from the relative dawn of high fidelity studio and live concert recording. Overall the sound is remarkably good, largely presented in original Mono for the oldest recordings. The set brings to light not only the legendary "big names" whom Granz arguably put on the map and helped to elevate to superstar status -- Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, notably -- but also a fairly amazing lists of artists of whom you may not have been aware. If you have access to the Tidal streaming service you can listen to this fine collection there (click here to jump to it) but I do encourage you to get the CD set as its a nice package and the price is very fair.
One of the great things about a well curated set like this is that it introduces the listener to music that may have been overlooked. I know it has already worked its magic on me, opening my mind so numerous artists I either missed completely or never fully considered. While listening to Norman Granz: The Founder I finally "connected" with Anita O'Day, a revered singer who many have told me about over the years but who I have opnly listened to cursorily. Here her version of "Lullaby of the Leaves" got me.
"Con Poco Coco" by Andre's All Stars is a swinging Afro-Cuban jam from the mid-50s which I have never heard before. I have some early Johnny Hodges 78's ('member them?) and am familiar with his tenure with Duke Ellington but hearing his "Castle Rock" on this set makes me want to go deeper on the solo career catalog of this influential Saxophonist.
The included pieces with Fred Astaire are fascinating. I actually have already been exploring those recordings as I own two of the rare original LPs and I also previously reviewed a dedicated CD set from this series -- which Universal released in 2017 -- exploring Astaire's jazz recordings with Oscar Peterson (click here to read that review).
The first disc on Norman Granz: The Founder features some of the early "blowing" sessions Granz recorded including a young Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and Lester Young.
And if you have never heard of Granz' legendary Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) series -- a successful run of concert tours which packaged Jazz musicians out of the clubs and on to big concert stages performing before large audiences -- there is really no better place to start than the second track on this set
From the official press release for the this set we gain some important perspective on the social impact of these concerts.
"Granz's parallel passions for jazz and social justice was reflected in the ambitious artist lineups he assembled for his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, many of which are featured on The Founder... Granz took it a step further when he aligned the jam session with the democratic ideal, whereby you could either stand and deliver, or you couldn't. Skin color made no difference. 'As in genuine democracy, only performance counts,' Granz told the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, in 1947. 'Jazz is truly the music of democratic America.'"
Recorded at the first JATP concert in 1944 the second song on this collection -- "Blues" -- features Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet and a young rising star named Les Paul. The performance is notable for Les and Cole challenging one another on a musical steeplechase that gets the crowd roaring. This recording never fails to bring a smile to my face as this pioneer of the electric guitar -- one of my big musical heroes, by the way -- shines in all his early freewheeling glory while Cole and Jaquet and the rest of the band burn up the stage. You can find a full series of JATP concert jam sessions streaming up on Tidal if you have access to that service (click here to jump to it).
And so it goes with Norman Granz: The Founder, an important collection which -- across more than three hours of music -- highlights music by Lee Konitz, Mel Torme, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Tal Farlow, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, Stuff Smith and many more. Norman Granz: The Founder is a great introduction to this producer's life work and also the many fantastic artists he brought into the limelight.