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The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice
By Tad Hershorn
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 Tad Hershorn
All rights reserved.
"All I Wanted Was My Freedom"
"I guessed from the odd spelling of my name, with a 'z' on the end, that at Ellis Island, when they passed through immigration, maybe the name was Granzinski, or something like that, [and] that my father had, I suppose, at some point chopped off the 'inski,' and left it with 'Granz,'" Norman Granz said, speculating on a common assimilation strategy his father might have employed when transitioning to a new life. He admitted that he had given little thought to his origins and cared about as much. Granz, however, was the family name that Morris Granz, then a resident of San Bernardino, California, had used when he declared his intent to become a citizen in November 1907 at the age of twenty-two. In April 1910 he took his oath of citizenship in Los Angeles, renouncing his allegiance to Czar Nicholas II, emperor of "all the Russias." According to the 1910 Census, taken within days of his becoming a citizen, Morris Granz described himself as an English-speaking single boarder who could read and write and had been employed in the garment industry continuously over the previous year.
The exodus that brought Morris Granz and eventually three of his brothers to the United States resulted from the failed 1905 Russian Revolution that forced revolutionaries and hundreds of thousands of Russian and Eastern European Jews to flee for their lives and liberty in the early twentieth century up until the outbreak of the First World War. Morris left from the German port city of Bremen for the trip to Ellis Island in May 1904; Ida Clara Melnick, Norman's mother, and her parents landed in New York the same year. Granz recalls that she had done some sweatshop labor when she first arrived in the city and that his parents met and married in St. Louis on the way to their ultimate destination, Los Angeles. Morris and possibly one of his brothers, both listed as salesmen and residing at the same address, first appeared in the Los Angeles city directory of 1911. By 1915 there were three Granz brothers under one roof, and by the following year yet another. In 1917 Morris peeled away from the family support network, although it was not until the following year, that of Norman's birth, that Ida Clara was identified as his wife in the city directory entry.
Morris was thirty-two and Ida Clara twenty on the morning of Norman's birth on August 6, 1918. The family resided at 1103 Twenty-third Street, bounded by Vernon Avenue and Central Avenue, an integrated area of Los Angeles where Norman Granz would return as a UCLA student to haunt jazz clubs in the early 1940s. "It is interesting that my parents settled in the Central Avenue area, which is like settling in Harlem," he said. He described an austere life growing up in a household shared from time to time by his parents and maternal grandparents. His grandparents never learned English, while his parents struggled with the language to get work and navigate daily life. Yiddish was Norman's first language. He went to Hebrew school as a youth at the same time that he attended junior high school in Long Beach. He spoke Yiddish to his grandparents but easily picked up English at school.
Granz may have been raised in a conservative Jewish household, but it does not appear that the family regularly attended services or had a home synagogue. Ida Clara Granz maintained a kosher kitchen and lit candles every Friday night, as was the family custom in Russia. Her son got up at six every morning for prayers, and for the rest of his life he would be an early riser, though without the religious ritual. The cornerstones of Granz's early family life were religion and, more important, basic survival. "You have to survive. If I were to ask them [his parents], I don't think they had ever heard of Franklin Roosevelt."
By 1920 garment manufacturing, along with clerical and blue-collar work in the emerging film industry, employed approximately two-thirds of the fifty thousand to one hundred thousand Jews in Los Angeles. The senior Granz's work existed on the periphery of the men's garment trade—described as "gents' furnishings" on Norman's birth certificate and including fabrics, used shoes, remaindered clothing, dry goods, and factory rejects—but it never amounted to what could be considered a trade. By 1920 Morris Granz had ventured from Los Angeles to Riverside and Colton, both approximately sixty miles east of the city. Two years later, the family settled in Long Beach, where he managed the Golden Rule Department Store until the early 1930s, when the Great Depression closed its doors. Many accounts of Granz's life have mistakenly asserted that his father owned the store. "I wish it were true," he said. "My father never was successful."
Granz's family life was squeezed both emotionally and financially, ever more so when his younger brother, Irving, was born eight years after Norman. The strain of their modest circumstances was more than sufficient motivation for people of his temperament to chart a course for moving on from, if not entirely forgetting, their origins. Adding to the tension at home was the Granzes' frequent bickering over "the precariousness, the insecurity" of their situation, aggravated by the greater success of their extended families. "My father had a very bad relationship with his brothers and nephews because they prospered," Granz said. "I guess they stopped helping one another."
It is a measure of Granz's self-education that none of the building blocks of his later life—music, art, and ideas—were formed at home. "I don't think any ethnic group cared about anything, if they were immigrants, except making money," Granz said. "There weren't, for instance, any paintings on the wall. They couldn't afford it. And they were not inclined or maybe not cultured enough for it, or curious enough, to buy for ninety-nine cents just a poster or something and put it on the wall." The same held true for music. Although his mother encouraged him to play piano when he was around seven, he soon quit. There was never any recorded music until Granz earned his own spending money.
A tattered hand-tinted studio portrait of the Granzes, taken when Norman was around six or seven and darkened to a bronze tone over the course of more than eighty-five years, reveals something of the social expectations imprinted on such formal occasions as a family sitting. The photograph shows up the poignant gap between this occasion and the grimmer reality the family faced upon leaving the photographer's studio. In the only surviving photograph of the family together, Morris stands protectively at the summit of the family tree, with Ida Clara seated in front of him and Norman on her lap, resting his head on her collarbone. Morris's suit, with a pin in the lapel suggesting some sort of affiliation, could easily be that of any small-town businessman or Rotarian. A faint, inexpressive smile on his wide mouth is accented by his unrevealing gaze and complements his receding hairline and close-cropped graying hair. His warmth toward his wife is conveyed by the sparest of gestures. He rests only his thumb on Ida Clara's fleshy shoulder, casting a trace of a shadow. Ida Clara, dressed in a sleeveless print dress and a pearl necklace, wears her dark hair in the short, bobbed style prevalent in the early 1920s. Her dark eyes and her slightly bowed mouth are mirrored in her son's features. With her left hand she clasps Norman's elbow as with her right she holds his right shoulder. Granz's small, solemn face is crowned with a shock of hair as golden as the buttons of his Cracker Jack sailor suit. His eyes capture the viewer's attention, as does a faintly arched eyebrow; in years to come, his bushy eyebrows would become a prominent and potent feature used to unsettling dramatic effect.
Norman began first grade and stayed until he graduated from junior high in 1932. There were few other Jews in Long Beach or among Norman's classmates—not that he particularly cared to seek them out. Long Beach, according to Granz, was "predominantly a midwestern community in its thinking.... I think I remember the Ku Klux Klan used to parade there in their nightshirts. But I don't think it had any influence on me at the time. I suppose that the reason I can mix so easily with minority members arose from my playing with kids on Central Avenue when it was a heterogeneous district with all minorities represented."
The Granzes returned to Los Angeles around the time Norman finished junior high school to settle in the ethnically and racially mixed Boyle Heights neighborhood, which Granz described as "a Jewish ghetto." Shortly after the 1932 Olympics hosted in Los Angeles, Norman—sandy-haired, athletic, and, at over six feet, already taller than his parents—enrolled in Theodore Roosevelt High School. Like the neighborhood, Roosevelt teemed with recently arrived and unassimilated immigrants and minorities, including Mexicans, Japanese, Russians, Jews, and African Americans. The sons and daughters of white Protestants were so few in the school population as to be almost curiosities in this polyglot setting.
Granz's appetite for knowledge, energy, self-possession, and entrepreneurial instincts were obvious by the time he started classes at Roosevelt High. By Granz's own admission, "The best thing that ever happened to me in high school" was that he befriended fellow student and intellectual voyager Aaron Greenstein, who as Archie Green would over the next eight decades become a central figure among folklorists and labor, cultural, and social activists and would spearhead the legislation creating the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in 1976. Born in 1917 in Winnipeg, Green came from a politically aware household—his father fled Russia after the 1905 Revolution, ultimately settling in Boyle Heights—and his influence was incalculable in Granz's early stirrings of intellectual passion in high school and the first couple of years at UCLA.
Granz, according to Green, made an impression on his classmates with his natural abilities as a student and as an athlete nicknamed "Speedy" for his prowess in basketball and tennis, a sport he continued to play for decades. "Norman was funny, he was intelligent," Green said almost seven decades after their meeting. "How could anyone miss the fact that he would succeed? He was an individual, and that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He wasn't the glad-hander, although he was nothing like a hermit either. Some people felt that he would come to no good. But I didn't."
Granz was equally taken with his new friend. "It was Archie who introduced me to the wonders of reading political magazines," he wrote late in life. "We became friends, even though he was nonathletic and I was athletic, and I hung out with different people, different boys that lived in my neighborhood." Granz began spending long evenings in the public library doing schoolwork and reading periodicals such as the New Republic, the Nation, Harper's, and Atlantic Monthly, as well as books that nourished his interests in literature, politics, and economics. These habits continued throughout his life; he maintained a sumptuous and ever-growing library in his London apartment until the late 1990s.
Equally significant were the excursions into what Green described as "New Deal culture"—dramatic, musical, and oratorical programs characterized by an internationalist, pluralistic outlook—experienced at a time when the two young men were awakening to culture as an idea but before, as Granz put it, "Archie went hillbilly and I went jazz." Among the productions Green remembered attending with Granz were the WPA Theater's production of The Hot Mikado and The Swing Mikado; the African American Hall Johnson Choir doing gospel, blues, and jazz; operas; Sinclair Lewis's play It Can't Happen Here; and Duke Ellington's short-lived, socially barbed musical revue, the 1941 Jump for Joy. Green added that music was not yet a central interest for either of them and that at the dawn of their lengthy friendship jazz had yet to seriously engage Granz.
Granz and Green supplemented their interest in leftist writings and cultural activities with what they picked up in their classes and in lectures by radical thinkers. Almost sixty-five years later, Granz still recalled his excitement in the late 1930s at hearing two lectures given at UCLA by Harold J. Laski, the brilliant socialist theorist, economist, author, and lecturer from the London School of Economics, then at the height of his Marxist phase. Granz's brush with Laski left him thinking about becoming an economist and studying at the famed London institution. "I was enthralled. I had never heard words used in that fashion," Granz recalled.
While still in high school, Granz took possibly his first-ever job on Saturdays at a men's haberdashery in downtown Los Angeles, which provided early training in gauging and influencing customers' tastes in addition to covering his school expenses. "My job was to act as a shill whenever anyone would stop and look at the shirts, etc., in the window. I would go into a spiel about what beautiful things we had inside and how inexpensive our products were," said Granz. He unfurled an even more imaginative example of his salesmanship on New Year's Day in the mid-1930s. He rented a truck, filled its bed with used wooden boxes for fruits and vegetables, and hawked his wares at fifty cents to a dollar to people hoping to catch a better view of the annual Rose Parade. This, arguably, was Granz's first brush with show business, and it was successful. He confidently predicted that he would be a millionaire by the time he was forty, a goal he would reach at least five years earlier. Even his signature in Archie Green's senior yearbook provides an ambiguous clue that he was looking ahead. "Norman Bradford Granz," he wrote near his portrait, which showed him wearing his mortarboard and gazing confidently into the future. Granz in fact had no middle name, and if he had, it would not be one sounding as if it came from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Green saw in this signature Granz's sardonic, subtle wit rather than any WASPish pretensions on his friend's part.
My asking Green about his longtime friend tapped the great teacher in him. Green eloquently recounted the historical, social, and religious particulars of the Russian Jewish experience in Los Angeles from which Granz had emerged. He could talk with equal authority about his own and Granz's parents and about the mixture of rebellion and adaptation by which the sons of Morris Granz and Samuel Greenstein had distinguished themselves as they pursued the archetypal dreams of first-generation Americans striving for success. Within their respective realms of jazz and vernacular music, they were equally committed to transmitting cultural and political messages that were infused with New Deal values and the émigré politics of the First Russian Revolution.
In the shakeout, Granz found himself a secular humanist with self-confessed communist leanings that the leftist Green, for all his radicalism, never shared. Granz did not consider religion anything near a guiding force in his life. Green believes that Granz's parents, despite the quickly widening divergence between their beliefs and those of their son, made their own peace with his direction in life. "Norman's success was more important than his parents' adherence to Orthodoxy and superstition." In 1987, Granz rejected the idea that his Jewish upbringing had explicitly influenced his later life. "I don't think anything that I did or that I do, or whatever, could be ascribed to Jewishness or anything of that sort," Granz explained. "I'm not sure that I even understand that kind of generalization. As far as I'm concerned, being poor didn't fill me with any determination other than that it's better to have money than not to have money."
Excerpted from Norman Granz by Tad Hershorn. Copyright © 2011 Tad Hershorn. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Foreword by Oscar Peterson
Prologue: “I Made Things Work”
1 “All I Wanted Was My Freedom”
2 “A Marvelous Crucible”
3 Cole Train
4 “The Opener”
5 Let Freedom Swing
6 Norman Granz versus . . .
7 Mambo Jambo
8 Enter Ella and Oscar
9 The Continental
10 “I Feel Most at Home in the Studio”
11 Starry Nights
12 “That Tall Old Man Standing Next to Ella Fitzgerald”
13 The Jazz Hurricane
14 “The Lost Generation”
15 Duke, Prez, and Billie
16 Joie de Verve
17 Across the Sea
18 “Musicians Don’t Want to Jam”
19 Picasso on the Beach
20 “One More Once”
21 Takin’ It on Out—for Good
22 “Somewhere There’s Music”
Epilogue: “My Career, Such As It Is . . .”
What People are Saying About This
"This book is a valuable addition to the jazz literature."The Jazz Society of Pensacola
"[A] diligently researched biography. . . . [Hershorn] meticulously documents the personnel and songs played at many concerts and recording dates."Stereophile
"An impressively researched, detailed, and highly readable account of . . . one of the most significant non-musicians in jazz."Blue Light
"This book is a valuable addition to the jazz literature."The Jazz Society of Pensacola