Born in Los Angeles by an Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry, Granz is a fundamental figure for American jazz music of the 1950s and the 1960s, and in general for this genre. Not a musician, he was one of the most important contributors to modern music.
He started his activity with a memorable concert in Los Angeles' Philharmonic Auditorium that is known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), from which he produced perhaps the first live jam-session recording to be distributed to a wide market; until then this kind of music was generally considered to be merely a vanguard style or, on the contrary, as mere cacophony. The group that performed at that concert, featuring Ray Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker "bird", Sonny Criss, Nat King Cole (as a piano player, not as a singer), Hank Jones, Shelly Maine, Fats Navarro, Flip Phillips and Tommy Turk, had two tours per year from 1946 to 1949; annual JATP tours continued until 1957, and were briefly revived in 1967. As is common in this genre, many legends accompany the person: about this production, it is said that the title of the concert had been shortened by the printer of the advertising, and that Granz had organised it with some borrowed $200.
Granz however achieved an agreement with Mercury Records for the promotion and the distribution of the JATP and other new records. This agreement expired in 1953, so Granz created his first independent label (Clef records) in which he intended to follow the JATP project. He also created Norgran records and Down Home records, meant to be reserved for traditional jazz works.
Most of the names that made the history of jazz signed with his labels, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Illinois Jacquet, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton, Buddy DeFranco, Louis Bellson, Tal Farlow, Sonny Stitt, Benny Carter, Cannonball Adderley, Howard McGhee, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldrige, Thelonious Monk, Barney Kessel, Gerry Mulligan and Louis Armstrong.
It was in 1956 that Ella Fitzgerald finally joined Granz's "community", after a long contract with Decca Records, and Granz unified his activities under the common label of Verve Records. The memorable series of "songbooks" (most important of which are those dedicated to George Gershwin and Cole Porter), together with the duets' series (notably Armstrong-Fitzgerald, Armstrong-Peterson, Fitzgerald-Basie, and Getz-Peterson) brought a wide popularity and also a more concrete success to the label and to the artists.
He died of cancer in 2001.
Norman Granz is generally remembered also for his notable anti-racist position and for the battles he consequently fought for his artists (many of whom were black, perhaps the majority), in times and places where skin color was the cause of open discrimination. In 1955, in Houston, Texas, he personally removed the labels "White" and "Negro" that would have separated the audience in the auditorium where two concerts were to be performed by (among others) Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie; between the two shows they were found playing cards in the dressing room and all arrested by some local policemen, but after a nervous treaty they were allowed to perform the second show. In the end, they were all fully discharged. He also was among the first to pay white and black artists the same salary and to give them to receive the same equal treatment for even minor details, like dressing rooms.
Beloved by his artists (in part because he paid more than average), he had three main goals, as he repeatedly and frankly declared: to fight against racism, to give listeners a good product, and to earn money from good music. Yet, he is little known by public.
The most famous of his labels, Verve, is today a synonym of high-quality recordings and musical contents or, shortly, for Norman Granz.