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The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve 1944-1949


By Tim Sheridan

If you were ever sent to the principal’s office as a child, you know the power of a room. Stepping across the principal’s threshold most likely made you blind with panic, even if you hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t the layout or the architectural detail; there was no special school-board feng shui involved. It was the idea of the room that terrified you. Certainly more thought went into the design of Los Angeles’s Philharmonic Auditorium than into most principals’ offices, but the theory is the same: the perception of what goes on within a space gives the space its power.

Norman Grantz, the founder of Verve Records, understood this in the early 40s, when he brought jazz from smoky clubs first into the Philharmonic and then into other traditional concert halls around the globe. The series initially infuriated critics, who thought the music and its enthusiastic audiences vulgar, but it thrived in the U.S. until 1957 and into the 1960s in Europe. By invading rooms ostensibly meant for more refined behavior–and for white audiences–Grantz and the racially diverse musicians of the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series helped change not only the course of jazz history, popularizing staged jams and concert recordings, but also American history. Now many of these remarkable performances have been documented on a ten-CD set, The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve 1944-1949.

Grantz was not the first to bring African-American culture into rooms designed for orchestras. Most notably, in 1938 and ’39 producer John Hammond organized a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall called “From Spirituals to Swing” (available on CD from the Vanguard label). The events were meant to trace the development of black music in America, and featured bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry, gospel’s Golden Gate Quartet, and the jazz bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie. But the broad scope of the program seems a little patronizing in retrospect, as if the artists on stage were specimens of anthropological interest rather than practitioners of living, breathing music. This impression was only heightened by the formal setting. Hammond, working within the expectations of the room, undermined the material he was presenting.

But Grantz had a different agenda, as he stated in an interview with Nat Hentoff that has been reprinted in the liner notes of the new box set. He wanted to change the idea of the room. In 1941 or ’42 he’d become friends with Billie Holiday. When she was working at an LA club, he would visit with her backstage or “in the hotel where she stayed, and in Los Angeles that meant that she stayed over in the south side on Central Avenue…instead of a hotel that would have been closer to the gig.” One night, some friends who’d come to see her play were turned away because they were “colored,” and Grantz watched this reduce Holiday to tears. “I think it kind of put things in a different perspective,” Grantz said. “I was individually against racism and against things like that happening, but now for the first time I felt I really ought to do something about it.”

What he eventually did was to book a concert at the Philharmonic on July 2, 1944, a benefit for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which provided aid to 17 local Chicano youths convicted of murder. (Their convictions would be reversed that fall.) A mind-blowing lineup of Benny Carter, Nat “King” Cole, Illinois Jacquet, J.J. Johnson, Les Paul, and others performed five sets of tunes like “Tea for Two” and “Body and Soul,” and in their relaxed, good-natured performances it is hard to make out any agenda at all.

That was key to the success of that event and of “Jazz at the Philharmonic” as a whole: Grantz let the music speak for itself. It was behind the scenes that he used his clout as a promoter of big-name acts to advocate for change. He didn’t always succeed. In 1949, he asked the owners of a theater in New Orleans to compromise in the way they segregated seating. Rather than restricting blacks to the balcony, Grantz asked, could the seats be split down the middle, whites on one side and blacks on the other? Management refused and Grantz canceled the show. In 1947 he told Down Beat magazine, “I’ve lost more than a hundred thousand dollars in bookings because I am actively concerned with promoting the civil rights of minorities.”

Whether the critics who hated “Jazz at the Philharmonic” were bothered by its politics or its music is hard to discern from their published responses. The Los Angeles Times’s music critic simply refused to come to the first show, and a 1946 concert in Chicago seems to have infuriated critic D. Leon Wolff for every reason except the political one. In his review, “Everything Bad in Jazz Found Here,” which is reproduced in the box set’s booklet, he called Jacquet “the lousiest tenor in the country making over $50 a week” and claimed that the concert “showed what happened when all the cheap and banal tricks of trivial, facile musicians are paraded for the lowest class of swing enthusiast.” Turning full force on the audience, he then wrote, “Every hydrocephalic and congenital idiot in Chicago was on hand.”

The concert he lambasted is not among those on the box set, but it’s clear from the other recordings what got his goat. Unlike the classical audiences who usually populated the concert halls, black and white jazz fans alike got involved in the performance, cheering, yelling, and exhorting the artists to raise the stakes. On “Oh, Lady, Be Good!” Ella Fitzgerald scats frenetically, even inserting a snatch of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” while the audience keeps a running commentary.

The musicians also egged the audience on with showy cutting sessions. On “Bugle Call Rag,” as performed April 27, 1946, at LA’s Embassy Auditorium, the double trumpet assault of Buck Clayton and Ray Linn goes head-to-head with the sax squad of Lester Young, Corky Corcoran, Coleman Hawkins, and Babe Russin. It’s easy to see how their sparring might have been perceived as vulgar at the time, but the excitement it generates is undeniable. That’s especially true of highlights like Holiday’s offhandedly graceful “The Man I Love,” riveting solos by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie on “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and the hilariously swinging 12-minute “Opera in Vout (Groove Juice Symphony)” by Slim Gaillard and Tiny “Bam” Brown.

The final disc finds Ella riffing on “How High the Moon?” backed by no less than Ray Brown, Roy Eldridge, Hank Jones, Charlie Parker, Flip Phillips, Buddy Rich, Tommy Turk, and Lester Young. The track begins with a false start, the mood is one of uproarious optimism, and if no one told you, you’d never guess it was recorded in the same confines as John Hammond’s 1939 museum piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers; Norman Grantz, circa 1947 photo/ Dion Mili-Life Magazine copyright Time, Inc; misc. photo by Bill Milne.