Review - The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions

Artist: Norman Granz


"A marvelous crucible." That's how Norman Granz described the atmosphere of exciting and challenging musical athleticism that developed from jazz jam sessions in the early '40s. Though Granz was not the first organizer of such sessions – in fact, it was by immersing himself in L.A.'s already extant jam scene that he became inspired to get involved with jazz in the first place – it was the recordings and tours he organized that helped catapult jazz (and these all-star "jousts") into the mainstream. Further, it was by emphasizing the unscripted interplay that comes from improvisation – rather than the syrupy sterility that emerged from micromanaged studio sessions favored by the music biz powers-that-be – that Granz helped cement the notion of jazz as a medium that's fluid and alive, rather than a museum piece.

When Verve compiled The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic box in 1998, they painted half of the picture of Granz's jazz-jam legacy. The Philharmonic concerts were some of the most popular tours during the '40s and '50s, bringing together famous (and soon-to-be famous) artists for nights of individual sets that culminated in a clash-of-the-titans jam session. The albums recorded from these concerts were also successful, impressing the unfortunate record-buying audiences who couldn't make it to the shows.

This box set compiles the nine sessions that Granz organized over a two-year period (1952-1954), putting the artists from the JATP shows in studio situations that were loosely arranged, but fairly predictable: You'd get a barnstorming blowing session, a blues, a ballad medley and a load of on-fire soloing. Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Ben Webster ... for the most part, the prime players of the era are here at their footloose best.

There's a picture in the booklet that accompanies this box that sums it all up. You see a cavalcade of heavyweights – Harry Edison, Benny Carter, Freddie Green, Count Basie (in a T-shirt!) – scattered around a cavernous recording studio, smiling and relaxed ... except for Stan Getz, whose bent-at-the-knees stance indicates a level of intensity that's gotta be intimidating for whoever's stepping up next. The sense of friendly competition is evident, as is the breezily informal nature of the session, and those two things make the tunes in this box set so enjoyably worthwhile.