Notwithstanding his bold efforts on behalf of integration and civil rights, Norman Granz’s name was often uttered in derisive tones when I began listening to jazz in the late sixties. As the man who’d founded Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1943 and established Clef/Norgran/Verve Records a few years later, he’d made a lot of money. Granz was a prickly autocrat too, but it was his riches that made him suspect. Unbeknownst to most at the time, but revealed in Tad Herschorn’s biography Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, Granz was actually a generous sort who lavished cash, watches, jewelry, and other gifts on many friends and colleagues.
The late sixties were also a spasmodic period for jazz with free and fusion vying for a splintering audience while the mainstream players that Granz championed were increasingly pushed to the margins, many all the way across the pond to Europe. Granz had sold Verve in the early sixties and retired to Switzerland, where he befriended Pablo Picasso and devoted himself to collecting art and other interests. But a decade later, dismayed at how little attention record companies and promoters were paying to his favorite artists, he presented an all-star concert in Santa Monica featuring Ella Fitzgerald, the Count Basie Orchestra, and a JATP-style jam session with Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, and Stan Getz. Granz pressed several albums that he culled from the concert and sold at mail-order, but they went nowhere. As Hershorn reports, “He was surprised when he sold only about 150 copies, a mere 1% of the sales of 150,000 copies of Jazz at the Philharmonic, Volume 1, when it had hit the stores in 1945.”
Frustrated at this lack of interest, Granz got back into the business and established Pablo Records in 1973. His wealth made it possible for him to operate Pablo as a label reflecting his personal tastes even more than so than the voluminous catalogue he’d built at Verve. His pet projects included showcasing both Count Basie and Duke Ellington as pianists; pairing Ella Fitzgerald with guitarist Joe Pass; releasing several sublime, yet moderate-selling LP’s by Zoot Sims with pianist Jimmy Rowles; and producing the duos that pitted Oscar Peterson against trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, and Jon Faddis. Of these, the Basie’s are the most extensive in number and scope, and they’d be my choice for desert island preservation.
Here’s what Tad Hershorn had to say about them in a recent exchange: “The Basie recordings are indeed desert island material (and dessert) and, I believe, the epitome of what Norman Granz tried to do with Pablo Records. He certainly did not need the money, and had no yen to get back into the give and take of the business side of the record business. On the other hand, Granz very much wanted to provide new settings and opportunities for those musicians of his era like Basie whom he thought were being neglected by the record industry, and would benefit from his guidance and patronage.
“Granz had wanted to get Basie outside the big band dating back to when he first signed him to Clef Records with the “New Testament” band in 1952, although Basie mostly resisted options to separate him from the band. Norman thought both Basie and Duke Ellington were underrated pianists, and wanted to take the opportunity of the founding of Pablo to correct those misconceptions. Pablo’s catalog features Duke’s Big 4 and This One’s for Blanton (both dating from 1973) indicating what Granz had in mind for Ellington before the band leader’s death in 1974. The results for Basie are, as you know, a splendid coda to an historic career going strong for forty years at that point. This achievement was possible because of Basie’s faith in Norman Granz and his own flexibility in playing with the many great musicians in the Pablo stable.”
My own jazz education began with an immersion in Ellingtonia and bebop, and while Basie’s Old Testament band of the thirties won my favor, largely because of the venerated Lester Young, it took awhile for me to fall in love with his piano playing. How delighted I am that I took the time to appreciate Basie time. Today, there’s little I hear that tops Basie’s keyboard for maintaining the sense of surprise and suspense embodied in jazz, and his touch and tone are unfailingly sublime. Thanks to Mr. Granz for recognizing this and coaxing Basie into these small combo showcases.
Basie recorded about fifteen ad hoc sessions for Pablo, including trio dates with Ray Brown and Louie Bellson; quartets with Zoot Sims and Dizzy Gillespie; two-piano sets with Peterson; and Kansas City 5, 6, and 7 sessions that brought together Harry “Sweets” Edison, Clark Terry, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Joe Pass, Willie Cook, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Snooky Young, Benny Carter, Budd Johnson, and Al Grey.
Basie also led the studio dates billed as Basie Jam 1, 2 and 3, and Pablo released a Count Basie Jam from Montreux in 1977. Click below for footage of the Basie-ites with Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Al Grey, Benny Carter, Zoot Sims, Ray Brown, and Jimmie Smith performing Eddie Vinson’s “Kidney Stew.”