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Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice

Tad Hershorn

(University of California Press; US: Oct 2011)

To perform and advance music as a radical means to challenge concrete social norms and archaic forms of discrimination is exigent. To write an almost flawless and objective biography of a man who changed the world of music, industry practices, and racial conditions in the United States seems insurmountable. Tad Hershorn’s Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice delivers an engaging and multisided retrospective on the culture altering jazz impresario.

Hershorn writes with passion and an eye for reconstructing history with rich descriptions, narration, and humor. He imbues his writing with equal parts admiration and critical analysis. Specifically, Hershorn demonstrates a special talent for vividly building social spaces and the atmosphere of performances, thereby immersing the reader through the hair-raising but melodic musical world of the mid-20th century. Hershorn, an archivist, makes use of countless records, linear notes, press releases, newspaper clippings, and interviews to reconstruct and animate Granz’s life. Arguably, one of the best biographies of the year, Hershorn approaches his subject with a critical eye, allowing readers to delve deeper into the early jazz industry and fully live the challenges and successes of the Granz empire.

Granz was not a musician, in fact from the biography it seems he rarely touched an instrument. Granz was, however, an assiduous man: he devoted his life to revolutionizing the music industry and forcefully inserting jazz into the cultural mainstream. In doing so, Granz managed and promoted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum – to name a few. The series of concerts and tours known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) challenged the division between high and low art while publicly displaying the talents of a multi-racial ensemble.

JATP’s popularity grew to such an epic magnitude that JATP became a versatile and powerful tool for the integration of the music industry. Granz used his art and music to influence political events and positioned jazz as the “forerunners of the increasingly public campaign against the racial status quo” (96). Granz combated racisms, addictions, and capitalistic monopolies but still maintained the integrity and creativity of the music and the musicians. He kept the audience’s ardor in mind while sustaining the fires lighting the musician’s creativities and passions.

Hershorn demonstrates how some critics frame Granz as a self-involved capitalist – he was one of the music industry’s early millionaires. Indeed, it’s difficult to discern if some of Granz’s statements and actions were in the best interest of his musicians and music, or were meant to ensure the highest financial gain. To demonstrate the commonality of this criticism, Hershorn includes various incidents and quotes from individuals who also questioned Granz’s motivations.

One instance captures Granz battling Charlie Parker and his drug addiction. Parker’s tendency to feed his drug habit before performances rendered him unpredictable and often caused him to miss bookings. Before an important performance in Los Angeles, Parker disappears but was found “virtually unconscious. He was really out of it” (127). Nowhere does Granz express concern for Parker’s well being and instead implores Parker to sober up and perform.

In another example, Billie Holiday is near the end of her life and visibly suffering from her drug and alcohol addictions. Again, Granz is a resolute businessman and advises a photographer to take as many pictures as he can since it might be his last opportunity. Perhaps the most jarring accusation of exploitation is uttered by Lester Young who “referred to Jazz at the Philharmonic as a ‘flying plantation’” (194). 

Hershorn is careful not to overlay his opinion or any type of romanticism on these matters and instead relates the facts.  However, as Granz’s story unfolds, it is clear that he cared deeply for the musicians and even sacrificed high paying performances if the integrity or well being of the musicians were jeopardized. The inclusion of criticism that was leveled at Granz is a testament to Hershorn’s writing. His biography presents a multivariate perspective on Granz’s life while stabilizing the retelling of criticism with deserved commemoration. 

Hershorn reminds readers that Granz was shrewd and calculating but honest; he financially and politically supported and fought for his musicians. Frequently, contracts were sealed with a handshake and gigs were canceled at the first sign of racial intolerance. In fact, Granz’s politics were always focused and progressive and his devotion to civil rights was the stalwart trait of Granz’s work and personal ethics. As Hershorn writes, Granz “wanted to challenge segregation in the South even more than he wanted to deliver good music” (244).

Perhaps unintentionally, a central theme throughout the text is the connection between contemporary racial issues and the racisms and discriminations experienced by Granz and his cadre of friends, musicians, and activists. For example, the Zoot Suit Riots and the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, embroiled as they were in racial discrimination, prejudice, and political corruption, resonate with the LA Riots and the current immigration legalities. Hershorn is careful not to present historical narratives anachronistically; however, it is impossible for the reader not to relate these moments to current themes from the national press.

A challenge in writing biographies is the presentation of a balanced and comprehensive analysis of the subject while stepping out of the shoes of a fan and donning those of an objective biographer. Hershorn almost effortlessly presents Granz’s life, maintains a critical perspective, and simultaneously provides Granz’s with the acclaim he deserves. Perhaps this is due to the exhaustive archival research Hershorn uses to demonstrate the multifarious memories framing Granz’s life.

In one example, Hershorn relates Granz’s and Lester Young’s disagreement over who actually conceptualized all-star music sessions. Utilizing primary sources and archived interviews, Hershorn frames the dispute by demonstrating both sides of the argument and adds Young’s grandson’s middle-ground perspective. What Hershorn accomplishes here is of two-fold importance. First, he reveals the mercurial nature of memory when reconstructing the past, especially when egos and reputations are at stake. Second, he stresses that a biographer must write with a critical and objective lens in order to present an in-depth analysis of identity and human nature. In the introduction, Hershorn articulates his passion for Granz’s music and his loyalty to their friendship. Throughout the biography, however, there is no taint of bias or personal subjectivity.

Norman Granz: The Man Who used Jazz for Justice is not an analysis of jazz music theory. Readers interested in learning the musical structures and systems of jazz will not find it in this biography. Nor are the cases of Granz’s political activism frequent, and the reader will only find detailed recapitulations of political engagement after about 250 pages. The focus of this biography is on the cultural context of jazz and Granz’s political activism is a secondary theme.

Hershorn pens the history of a man who situated himself in the middle of a burgeoning cultural movement and ignited the art. Granz facilitated and nursed jazz in a way that changed the musical landscape, all the while skyrocketing artists such as Fitzgerald, Peterson, or Young into stardom. For Granz music is a reflection of the artist, the context, and the developing relationship between sound and listener. For Hershorn, Granz serves as a symbol of zeal, devotion, and unflagging political convictions.  Those who believe Granz acted in his best financial interest miss the main point: Granz used his music and life work to “allow him to take his crusades on behalf of jazz and racial equality to new heights” (132).


Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff is currently a graduate student in the American Culture Studies Ph.D. program at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green Ohio. She is interested in visual and musical popular culture, and wishes to research the ways in which the role of women in music, both contemporary and historically, have shaped the gender, political and cultural boundaries of the independent and mainstream music industry. I love music in all forms - but there is no way to tell what I will or will not like. One thing remains certain: I love everything Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen have created.

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