Preview of the 23rd annual Vail Jazz Festival: Norman and Ella |

Preview of the 23rd annual Vail Jazz Festival: Norman and Ella

Howard Stone
Preview to the Vail Jazz Festival
Norman Granz, the son of Russian immigrants, helped launch Ella Fitzgerald to the top of the music world in 1956, where she would remain for the rest of her life. During their 40-year relationship, Norman confirmed that he never signed an actual contract with Fitzgerald, stating each had the right to terminate the relationship if either was unhappy.
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If you go ...

What: Vail Jazz presents Carmen Bradford and Byron Stripling in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Where/When: July 26 at 6:30 and 9 p.m. at the Sonnenalp Hotel; July 27 at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead. Cost: $40 on July 26; general admission is $25 on July 27.

More information: Visit

Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song,” recorded more than 1,100 songs during a career that spanned more than half a century. She sold more than 40 million albums, won 13 Grammy awards and performed to adoring fans throughout the world.

This year is the centennial of Ella’s birth, and celebrations abound in the world of jazz and beyond, paying tribute to her and reminding us all of her contribution to not only jazz, but to popular music of the Western World. Long after her passing in 1996, her musical legacy lives on.

From the beginning of her career in the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s she was generally confined to performing in jazz clubs with segregated audiences. Concert halls and upscale venues were out of reach. The upward trajectory of her career had stalled and she was stuck in a niche with a loyal jazz audience at a time when jazz was being overtaken by the popular music of the day — rock ’n’ roll.

Fitzgerald had all of the qualities needed to succeed but lacked the vision of how she could broaden her audience and overcome the barriers facing an African American jazz singer.

Meet Norman Granz

That vision appeared in 1956 when Norman Granz, the son of Russian immigrants, changed the arc of Ella’s career, catapulting her to the top of the music world where she would remain for the rest of her life. Granz was a concert promoter, talent manager, record producer and record label owner. One of the most important figures in the history of jazz, he was an innovator that changed the course of jazz, all the while championing the cause of civil rights.

Granz grew up during the Depression and fell in love with jazz. Starting out promoting nightclub shows during World War II, he hit upon the idea of taking the jam sessions that regularly took place “after hours” in jazz clubs and presenting them in a concert setting, thereby exposing the brilliance of improvising jazz musicians to a much larger audience.

The first concert he presented was in 1944 at the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, billing it “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The concert was a remarkable success and led Granz to regularly present Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in L.A. and quickly thereafter, throughout the U.S. (but not the segregated South), and then touring internationally. Not bad for a 25-year-old jazz fan.

In addition to presenting unique programing, he understood the draw of the jam session and recorded the performances, thereby expanding the audience and building the Jazz at the Philharmonic brand.

By the 1950s, Norman’s meteoric rise as a concert promoter allowed him to build relationships with some of the most important jazz musicians of the era. Norman knew the sting of prejudice personally, having had an African American girlfriend.

He was totally dedicated to not only presenting jazz but integrating the audience while elevating the genre from smoke-filled clubs to concert halls throughout the world. It is hard to believe today, but even after World War II, audiences were still segregated in the U.S. Norman vowed to change that and he did by requiring venue operators to allow an integrated audience when the musicians he managed and the concerts he promoted were presented in their venues.

To the top of jazz

Fitzgerald toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic and Granz wanted to manage her since he had a vision of how he could advance her career, not only broadening her audience but also elevating the venues she would perform in. She was hesitant, but Granz was very persistent and he offered to manage her for no fee and give her the right to terminate their relationship at any time.

Fitzgerald reluctantly agreed in 1955, although she insisted that she pay his customary management fee. Years later, Granz confirmed that he never had a signed contract with Fitzgerald during their 40-year relationship, explaining that each had the right to terminate their relationship if either was unhappy.

Shortly after becoming Fitzgerald’s manager, Granz was able to extract Fitzgerald from her recording contract with Decca and signed her to his new record label, Verve. The catalog of Verve grew as jazz greats including Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster and Lester Young were added to the label.

With Fitzgerald’s signing to Verve, Norman relaunched her career, taking her from a cult figure loved by jazz enthusiasts to the top of the world of pop music, while presenting her in a way that did not offend her hard-core jazz fans. How did he do it? Granz’s vision was for Ella to celebrate the Great American Songbook and she did in a series of eight recordings in eight years.

Starting with “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” in 1956, Granz followed with tributes to Rogers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. These recordings were artistically brilliant and commercially a bonanza. They confirmed that Granz was indeed “the First Lady of Song.”

Asked about Granz’s Songbooks, Ira Gershwin was quoted as saying: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”

The rest of the world agreed, and Granz never looked back.

Tribute to Ella

At 6:30 and 9 p.m. on Wednesday at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Thursday in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead Village, Vail Jazz presents Carmen Bradford and Byron Stripling in a tribute to Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and their three great albums celebrating the American Songbook. Happy 100th birthday, Ella Fitzgerald.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 23rd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz. Visit for more information.

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