May 3, 2011

A Treasure Trove of Jazz from Norman Granz

Norman Granz was the producer of the famous Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series, a constantly changing all-star jazz band that toured the United States and Europe from 1945 to 1959 and at one time or another included just about every significant jazz artist of the day. He was also a record producer and founder of Verve Records, among other labels.

Granz was born in Los Angeles of Jewish immigrant parents, a background that may help explain his lifelong battle against racism, particularly as it manifested itself in the jazz world of the 1940s and 1950s. He was known for his generosity, both in dollars and spirit, paying his musicians very well and insisting they be treated fairly regardless of the color of their skin. Finally, he was the long-time personal manager of Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson.

If that wasn’t enough of a curriculum vitae, Granz also made jazz films, many of which are gathered together on Norman Granz: Improvisation. This DVD presents a cornucopia of terrific jazz performances spanning the period from 1950 to 1977. The earliest snippet shows Charlie Parker performing with one of his heroes, Coleman Hawkins, and smiling like a little kid as he listens to The Hawk. Other highlights include Ella Fitzgerald and Lester Young from the same early session, Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry battling it out on trumpet backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio, Duke Ellington playing for the sculptor Jean Miró on the Côte d'Azur, Joe Pass playing a couple of guitar solos, and Count Basie backing soloists Al Grey, Vic Dickenson, and Roy Eldridge.

The film begins with a short and pretentious featurette about Granz and the artistry of jazz improvisation, intoned with great seriousness by jazz critic Nat Hentoff. Once you get past this bit of fluff, the rest is a feast for the ears and the eyes.

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