JJ 11/63: In My Opinion – Norman Granz

Sixty years ago Norman Granz regretted that his popular album Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Ellington Songbook didn't come out better. First published in Jazz Journal November 1963

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Norman Granz

This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop.

Norman Granz is that rara avis, an impresario who actually fully understands and lives the music he promotes. In the few short years in which he has been involved in concert pro­motion, Mr. Granz has benefitted the lot of jazz musicians by giving them steady work for which they have been paid hand­somely. In addition he had the foresight to record many musicians in conditions best suited to good jazz playing – recordings made without the doubtful benefit of a presiding A&R man. But for his long-sightedness it is doubtful it the genius of Art Tatum would have been perpetuated for posterity as it has been in the series of long players Tatum recorded for Norman Granz just before his death. I asked Norman quite recently if and when he was going to write a book. I am unhappy to say he informed me he was not interested. Yet here is a man who by his work has been in close harmony with so many famous musicians that it is evident he must have a story to tell – a story that should not be lost. I would like to think he will reconsider his decision. – Sinclair Traill

All My Love. Budd Johnson and the Four Brass Giants. Riverside RLP 343
Well, I had never heard of this record before, and I must admit that the idea had never occurred to me to make an album with Budd Johnson and four trumpets. The last time I had Budd on record was with Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge. It was ostensibly Ben Webster’s date, but on one number particularly, when Budd Johnson had got through with his solo and was then followed by Coleman, as Roy said, there wasn’t much left for poor Ben to do. They had really wrapped it up, and Budd in particular, who had kicked the number off – it was, I think, In A Mellotone.

I just love the way Budd plays and although I hate to go on saying this, the public really don’t half appreciate what he can do. He is genuinely one of the great tenor saxophonists and it is a shame, for whatever reason it is, that the public and the critics too don’t catch on to his greatness. Also he is not only more than competent as a great soloist, but he is a genuine band leader who deserves a big band; he has every right to have a big band – more right than some I can think of. In addition, of course, he is a very fine arranger – he did some very good ones for the Quincy Jones band, in which he played tenor.

But every bit as much as I liked Budd Johnson’s playing, I admired Cannonball Adderley’s choice of four trumpet players. If Cannonball ever reads this interview I know he will accept this in the spirit it was intended, but on the two tours Cannonball made for me, plus all the records I have heard of his group, I like Nat as much as I like Cannonball. On some things I even like (as Cannonball puts it) his baby brother better, for to me he is a marvellous trumpet player. He is a very humorous human being, a thing which shows up very strongly in his playing.

But if one is going to nominate the most under-rated trumpet player in jazz, the one whom no-one appreciates, that dubious distinction must go to Ray Nance. Ray is really something. In all the years I’ve heard Duke’s band – and this is an opinion which is seconded by Billy Strayhorn, who knows Duke’s band even better than I do – there may have been heights reached by certain trumpet players in the band, heights that perhaps Ray has not reached, yet, but none have ever reached the standard of high consistency that Ray does. As Billy said, “I have never heard Ray play badly” – and that is really the mark of a professional! Ray always plays well and he has a great deal of soul – he has a tremendous lot of feeling either on the violin or the trumpet. I just love his violin playing: to me it is just pure jazz. I know that one session that I set up and deeply regret that I never did was a session with the Peterson Trio and Ray. Oscar was particularly keen to do it, but it is one of those things we never got round to.

Of the other two trumpet players on this record, there has been already so much said about them that there is not too much I can add. ‘Sweets’ is a real stylist, and that is a good word to describe his playing; he does everything in his own way and he does it very stylishly. Clark is the great all-round man. He is a most adaptable trumpet player who can fit his playing perfectly to the company in which he is playing at that moment. He fits as well into the Ellington band as he does into the big Columbia Broadcasting orchestra. The last time I saw Clark was when Ella Fitzgerald was doing a television show with two singers, one was called Dinah Shore and the other Joan Sutherland (those three girls sang wonder­fully) and in the large 40-piece band was Clark Terry, fitting just as well as he does into this small group.

I haven’t had to buy an album for years, they are all sent to me, but this one escaped somehow. I like it so much that I shall just have to go out and buy it – and that will be a novelty. It’s a wonderful album!

‘I can’t think of any composer who has such a large and important body of works, such as Ellington has, who has been given such a terrible collection of banal lyrics’

I Ain’t Got Nothing But Blues. Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Ellington Songbook. HMV CLP 1213
Well, you picked a good track there, but as an album to me that was a big disappointment. I always rate any project in two ways, what it accomplishes in itself, that is how it comes off. But this I do primarily as a listener, that is after the fact, but as a professional if I’m concerned with making it or even I suppose if I hear someone else’s album which I haven’t made, I inevitably think just how I would have done it.

I have always felt that this album never achieved what it was capable of achieving – in terms of the talents of the two artists involved. The album was not done in the right way to begin with. Duke’s band you know, is really a band which feels its way around anything new. Duke rarely – if ever – writes anything out fully or completely. He normally just gives it a skeleton upon which his soloists can hang their own contributions. I’ve watched him at rehearsals make basic changes in the frame and the band are able to adapt themselves to whatever Duke has done and Duke in turn readjusts, compromises and makes alterations to suit the band. The final result is wonderful, but I doubt if there is really ever a final result, for over a period of time any Ellington tune changes its form in some way, although it may be almost imperceptible.

Ella on the other hand, being a singer, has to have certain foundations upon which to work. She has to have the foundations of arrangement, so she knows just where to come in, and she has the bigger problem of fitting in the lyrics to what the musicians are playing – unless of course she is scatting. She also has a bigger solo problem, for where the band may be doing something over a lyric that can’t be heard she feels as a singer that that is not good since the lyrics should be heard too. The point is that a more fixed preparation has to go into a vocal album than into a purely instrumental album, and here this didn’t happen.

Let me begin by saying I can’t think of any composer who has such a large and important body of works, such as Ellington has, who has been given such a terrible collection of banal lyrics. I really think that if one considers Duke’s songs in toto the complete mediocrity of the lyrics must strike one as being astounding. The melodies are marvellous, but the lyrics! When you think how George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Berlin and others have benefitted either by their own lyrics or those of a lyricist, then when you think how Duke has suffered. There may be some exceptions, but in the main the results have been appalling.

Well, here you have Ella struggling with these mediocre lyrics, trying to give them some meaning, and also because this was one of the Songbook series, she was mindful of the standards I had insisted upon with the other albums of this series. Not only was she singing, but she felt she was giving people a collection of great songs – that was the whole idea of the Songbook. And so with Ellington, she felt that he deserved the same fair shake as a composer as did the others. The others, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin and the rest, had had their compositions played by a studio band and studio arrangers, whereas Duke did all his own.

Well, we came into the session and did the whole thing in two days – we had already done the small group a few months before – all in one afternoon. There was nothing written. Duke would ask Ella what key she was in and she would tell him the key and he would have to transpose and there would be a lot of furious writing to change the key. Then Ella would try and fit in and the band would get swept along by its own memories of just how it ought to play, and so Ella, as you can hear on some of the songs was fighting for her very life with Cat Anderson hitting those top notes or even fighting Johnny on something else. Really, at one point she became so nervous and became almost hysterical, that she began to cry. Duke went over to her and said “Now, now baby” in his most gentle tones, “Don’t worry – it’ll all turn out fine”.

So, it is true that it is a tribute to these two great artists that they did manage to turn out something that you liked, the public liked and I too for that matter also liked. My only regret is that this album didn’t turn out to be as great as it could have been. I rather feel, and this is something Ella has discussed with me from time to time, and I rather think Duke would agree if he were pushed (for Duke normally says what is done is done and that is the end of it); I feel that if a little more time had been spent on this album, time to get things in order, almost to set up a routine, we might have accomplished, musically, much more than we did.

Also, I was terribly unhappy with the actual recording. Owing to Duke’s bookings and having to fit the band in when Ella was free, we were forced to take a studio which was kind of second choice. We couldn’t get the engineer we wanted and everything was done in a rush. So all-in-all it could have been much better and it says a lot for the artists concerned that it did turn out as well as it did.

Three or four months previous to this session I had said to Duke that he ought to write a suite for Ella, and he agreed. Well, I flew into Chicago the night before the session only to find that Duke hadn’t written one single note, not a note! So when we went to the studio the following day, Duke had on the backs of some old envelopes worked out a few things. Now, I know a better suite could have come out of this – but that is Duke Ellington!

‘I have the greatest respect for Louis Armstrong as the greatest single figure in jazz . . . I don’t care who it is one may like, there is not one who has remotely approached Louis for the universality of great art’

Brother Bill. Bing and Satchmo. MGM CS 6020
Well, I haven’t heard the whole album of course, but that was pure junk! I have such a deep respect for Louis, as a real genius, and I equally respect Bing as a professional – indeed a very great professional in the true sense of the word. I don’t know which A&R man chose that material, but it’s just sacrilege! It’s like hiring Picasso to do a painting for you, and then to ask him to paint a sign, saying ‘Open from Nine to Ten’. If one is going to use great artists then it is one’s duty to give them good material upon which to work. It is one of the criticisms I have of Louis, or rather his management, if you like.

I have the greatest respect for Louis Armstrong as the greatest single figure in jazz. I certainly think Duke is tremendous but he is basically tremendous in the company of others. Louis is something else again – he is the great individual, and when he leaves – that’s it! I don’t care who it is one may like, there is not one who has remotely approached Louis for the universality of great art. I think Tatum was equally as great as a jazz artist, but he never began to have the universal communication that Louis has.

There are such great recording projects that one could do, because one must remember that when Louis leaves one can only look to what he has done on record and on film. That’s why I say most strongly that on record he should never be given anything but the very best material upon which to work. When I recorded him, I tried my best to give him good material (“Porgy And Bess” and other good songs). I recorded him with Ella, who for quite different reasons, is an equally great singer although his opposite in some respects.

I honestly think that Louis should be national property much in the same way as you in your country preserve your national treasures. Other countries look after their national treasures, and so should America in the case of Louis Armstrong. It is a shame that his management doesn’t look to other things than economics – they should have him do a series of things for posterity.

I can’t imagine ever listening to Louis and not feeling happy, but that commonplace song and oh-so commonplace arrangement was almost an exception. I always laugh when I read those quotes about the modern musicians and ‘soul’ – Louis has really more soul than the whole lot of them put together.

Lulu’s Back In Town. Swing With Pee Wee. Prestige 2008
It was back in 1941, when I first came to New York, that I had my first chance to hear Pee Wee Russell in person. Usually I think that when I like a jazz artist I like just about everything he does tho’ admittedly certain artists do some things better than they do others – some prefer fast tempos, some slow. Dizzy, for instance, prefers up tempos, Roy likes medium tempos and so on. And so although I must admit I don’t know Pee Wee’s likes and dislikes, I think I prefer him playing slow – a blues for choice.

I don’t think I can remember hearing Pee Wee play in low register like that, but I know he has something very special to say – he has a very “special” kind of talent that one has to develop a taste for. He doesn’t appeal at once as does the work of most great jazz artists – his music is an attraction that grows on one.

Now, Buck Clayton, as far as he goes, is a peculiar bird. I remember years ago when I used to go around with Nat Cole and Jimmy Blanton back in Los Angeles, we used to often listen to a record of Count Basie’s called Easy Does It, on which Lester takes a marvellous solo, followed by two muted trumpets in sequence. Well, we were always arguing which was ‘Sweets’ and which was Buck, and it was very difficult to tell them apart. In fact ‘Sweets’ had more of a buzz to his tone, whilst Buck’s tone was sweeter than ‘Sweets’. But when they both used Harmon mutes it was almost impossible to tell them apart. I took Buck and Roy Eldridge on my very first J.A.T.P. tour, and although Buck was great then, he has since become the complete musician, in a sense like Clark Terry – they have in a way almost lost their identities, because they have become so competent and do things so well that one is apt to forget their greatness.

All great jazz artists are very specialised in what they do – in fact this very specialisation is apt to refine and distil for the listener the basic definition and greatness of the artist. Buck, particularly during the past few years, has lost that specialisation, that identification. Years ago it would to me have been an anachron­ism for Buck to have played with Pee Wee Russell. Not that he couldn’t fit, oh no, but that he would have seemed happier with Lester Young playing clarinet or someone of that genre. He fits wonderfully here, which brands him as an all round great jazz musician, but he loses that specialisation that is almost necessary with jazz.

I brought Buck and ‘Sweets’ together not so long ago on a record date. I listened carefully, but I looked in vain for that similarity between ‘Sweets’ and Buck which had been so noted in the old days; it was easy to tell them apart, because I think these days Buck has spread himself out – I think the word I want is that he has diffused his talents. Pee Wee on the other hand has in some ways retained his identity, his specialisation, more than has Buck.

‘I have read all about the great success that Trad has had in this country and have seen how the jazz magazines have all stood against it by saying the music is trashy. Well, I think that is all a lot of nonsense’

Travellin’ Blues. Bob Wallis and his Storyville Jazzmen. Pye NJL 30
I have read all about the great success that Trad has had in this country and have seen how the jazz magazines have all stood against it by saying the music is trashy. Well, I think that is all a lot of nonsense, because if you were to go to a really great jazz artist, and I am not talking about a jazz artist replying out of courtesy, I think you would find that they don’t criticise this type of music. They may say we like this type of jazz if it’s played well because . . . and they go into Answer 21 which says we like all good music if it’s well played no matter what it is.

But I think most art of this sort, and by art I mean creativity (and say what you will but a group of human beings created it, so it’s art in some form), can’t be taken out of its context. Last February we did some concerts in Germany. We did them in the fasching season, the kind of Mardi Gras time which in Bavaria extends from January until Easter. Everyone dresses up in costume and one night after I had done a concert with Ella I went along to the jazz-fasching ball – they have a wonderful way of doing it; they convert the museum into a ballroom with stands where they sell beer and sausages and they have at least half a dozen bands. And this was the kind of music that was played by all those bands, and under those conditions I cannot conceive of better music. You were full of sausages and beer, there were plenty of pretty girls around and everyone was happy and relaxed – and in those circumstances Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie or anyone like that would just have sounded ridiculous.

This group Bob Wallis would have been a smash hit there, for this is just the kind of music those people wanted. I think you have to take this music and put it in its proper place and I am sure that the conditions under which this music has survived and in fact wins in England is because many of your jazz clubs merely perform like miniature fasching balls. It is music for young people who like to dance and enjoy themselves and don’t want anything in any way complicated in the way of music.

I think that people in Europe forget the whole genesis of jazz, and by jazz I mean jazz in America where it started and continues to flourish. I don’t mean to go back to the riverboats and all that nonsense. I’m talking about the so-called golden era of jazz, the time of the big bands in the late 30s and 40s. You never went to a night club to hear jazz, you went to a ballroom to dance and you got knocked out by Count Basie because you were probably having a few drinks on the side and maybe were with an attractive girl – but you were primarily dancing. Even those devoted fans who stood around the bandstand were almost dancing by themselves, for the music was as compelling as that and you rated a band accordingly.

The historic battles at the Savoy Ballroom were between dance bands and it was in these bands that you got the great soloists, but the soloists were never great without the band. Such people as Lester Young were always at their best when the rhythm section was swinging behind them – they always danced to Lester Young, they never listened to Lester in those days, they felt him. They sensed what he was doing, and the performances one heard on record were really dance-band performances – and that is the whole history of American jazz.

It was only during the war, when for economic reasons the ballrooms went out of business, that night clubs came in, it was simply that the owners could make more money selling you drink than floor space. The only big bands that survive nowadays have to compete with the small groups, which is wrong. But what else can they do when people are just sitting, listening and drinking? As a result of this there arose the rhythm and blues bands, which were only the old rock and roll groups under a new name. They had singers with these groups and the lyrics were more appalling than the music. There were, of course, good blues men like Louis Jordan, who was near enough to the genuine blues singers. So as the big bands could not be danced to any longer, as there was no room in which to dance, the kids started dancing at home to the rock and roll records.

And the music on this record is the same thing, filling the same want for this country as the rhythm and blues bands do at home. They fulfil the need for young people who want to move, who want to dance. I remember on Duke’s latest tour we were in Munich. Duke got held up for half an hour and the audience were becoming restive. The band wanted to know what they should do, so I suggested they dug into the library and played their routines they used for Duke’s dance engagements. By the time Duke arrived he admitted that there was nothing left for him to do – the band had destroyed the audience and all they wanted to hear were those great dance numbers of Duke’s. And that’s why I can never get angry with this kind of music – I think it’s funny and happy and it’s just what is needed for the young people to dance to.