Civil Rights through Music

Norman Granz was the son of Jewish immigrants to America. When World War II began, he was drafted into the Army Airforce and assigned to the division providing entertainment for the troops. This assignment determined his career destiny. He took on a leading role in production of music and talent for the rest of his life.

He had firsthand experience with racial discrimination and devoted his career to opening opportunities for musicians of all backgrounds. Norman was especially fond of jazz and would frequent jazz clubs. Jazz at the time was largely performed by African Americans in small smoke filled rooms. Norman wanted to bring jazz to a wider audience, but he again confronted racial discrimination.

He decided to launch a concert series entitled Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). The concerts moved from small clubs to concert halls. The concerts were a success in opening up jazz to a more diverse audience. But the performers were still denied lodging at hotels and could not enter whites-only restaurants. Norman fought against these practices and had non-discrimination clauses added into the contracts at various venues. When a white ticketholder objected to being seated next to a black ticketholder, Norman returned the price of the ticket to the white ticketholder and ask him to leave. He would not condone discrimination in any form.

Norman was a manager of careers of jazz performers and created his own record labels to showcase the talents of those he managed. The careers that he managed and the recordings that he produced are the best-of-the-best in American music. Perhaps the most acclaimed series of recordings were with Ella Fitzgerald. Norman produced a series of songbooks which had Ella Fitzgerald sing the songs of what we now call the Great American Songbook. It’s ironic that an African American singer has established the legacy of white song writers.

When we think of the fight for civil rights, we often think of marching, sit-downs, speeches, and atrocities against those supporting civil rights. We have lost track of those who fought for civil rights by being in a position where they could insist that everyone be treated with basic decency. And in their actions, they have made America much richer as a society.

Just imagine not being able to enjoy the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Lewis Armstrong, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and many others. Our ears are not as prejudiced as our eyes.

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“I made it easier for many artists to play in certain areas.” – Norman Granz

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