There is a skittish black and white film from 1967 depicting a jazz concert in London. Introducing the acts is a tall, sandy-haired man with a commanding presence. He sways slightly as he explains what jazz-making on the fly sounds like: ‘If we’re lucky tonight we will hear a very, very good concert, and if we’re not, it’ll just be a good concert.’
He then turns to the wings where the trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie is preparing to walk on stage. The compère in question was jazz-loving impresario Norman Granz (1918-2001), the first person, according to New York music critic Whitney Balliett, ‘to successfully mass produce jazz’.
In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Granz also enjoyed a close friendship with Pablo Picasso during the latter years of the artist’s life, and a selection of drawings and prints from the impresario’s collection is to be offered across 20th Century Week at Christie’s. A Close Friendship: Picasso from the Collection of Norman and Grete Granz, includes many works acquired directly from Picasso, featuring the dedication, ‘For my friend Norman’.
‘I don’t think you have to understand a painting. I don’t think you have to understand a piece of music’ — Norman Granz
Born in 1918 into a family of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry, Granz grew up in South Central Los Angeles before studying philosophy at UCLA. It was here, in 1939, that he discovered modernism in the broad-brush sax-blast of Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul. From then on he was a regular on Central Avenue, the epicentre of the city’s black jazz community.
Later in life Granz equated the song to a Cubist Picasso: ‘It simply stands as a great work of art whether done yesterday or 50 years ago… It does not give me a warm feeling of nostalgia for that period — no! It stands on its own NOW!’
Granz’s love of modernism grew, and by the 1950s the budding promoter was introducing jazz to corners of the world that had rarely encountered it, through his touring concerts Jazz at the Philharmonic, while also managing the prodigiously talented Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. He was responsible for some of the century’s most iconic recordings, including the 1956 Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald rendition of Cheek to Cheek.
Granz founded five record labels, the last named Pablo Records, in honour of Picasso. His great skill lay in the bringing together of different talents: the likes of Hawkins, Lester Young, Peterson and Duke Ellington. ‘He was a great catalyst, a man that was able to put together sparks that caused a fusion,’ said Peterson, aka the Maharaja of the Keyboard.
A combative anti-racist, Granz insisted on an integrated audience at a time when many concert halls were still segregated. If the venue objected, the contract was cancelled — Granz had an Old Testament belief in what was just, and an Old Testament-sized fury when crossed. ‘A weak anti-racist law can vitiate real progress,’ he once told Picasso. ‘Absolute enforcement is essential.’
In 1960, Granz sold Verve Records to MGM, making $2.5 million in the process. He left America for Europe, bought a house in Switzerland and hung out in Juan-les-Pins with the European avant-garde. He introduced Gillespie to the Surrealist Joan Miró, the two trading their ground-shifting lurch into the imaginary by creating art and music together at St Paul de Vence in 1966.
Granz began to collect French Modern art — Picasso, Georges Braque, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger and Jean Dubuffet. He applied the same simple candour to art as he did to music, saying, ‘I don’t think you have to understand a painting. I don’t think you have to understand a piece of music. I think you need to listen to it or look at it.’ By the late 1960s he had established a significant collection.
It was during this period that Granz met Picasso. He had been an avid collector for some time, assembling an impressive array of drawings and prints by the artist. On occasion, he became frustrated by the lack of interest his musicians showed in art, recalling Fitzgerald’s response when invited to meet the great modernist with the words, ‘I’m busy. I’m darning my stockings’.
Apparently Picasso roared with laughter when Granz told him, and drew a portrait of Fitzgerald. ‘He had no idea what she looked like,’ Granz said, ‘but in his own genius way, the picture was perfect.’
Picasso liked Granz for his offbeat sensibility; he collected unconventionally, and kept up with Picasso’s continually changing styles. He was also one of the few collectors allowed to stop by the artist’s studio without a prior appointment. He sent Picasso shirts from Turnbull & Asser in London, which the artist wore backwards as painting smocks.
When Picasso discovered Granz’s role in combating segregation through jazz, he was sufficiently impressed to pronounce, ‘I’d much rather talk to you about your country’s colour problems than about my pictures’.
In fact, it was Granz’s passion for Picasso that led to him taking out a full-page open letter in the weekly L’Express in late 1969, in which he urged the French government to establish a dedicated museum in Paris to the artist. Bemused, Picasso told him not to waste the money.
Their friendship endured until the artist’s death in 1973. Almost 30 years later, just before his own passing, Granz described the times he spent with Picasso as some of the most joyful periods of his life.
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‘There is truly a Picasso for everyone,’ says Impressionist and Modern Art specialist Allegra Bettini of the collection, ‘from playful sketches to the more significant examples of his draughtsmanship.’ Works are offered in New York in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 May, and in the Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Sale on 14 May.