“Jazz at the Philharmonic” Reissues Offer Snapshot of Greatest Live Jazz Sets Ever Recorded

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Norman Granz may not be a household name today, but the influential producer changed the way jazz music was presented and perceived. Through his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concerts and album series from 1944-1957, Granz raised the profile of jazz and featured racially integrated bands on his commercially successful tours and recordings. I wrote a few weeks ago about the Miles Davis and John Coltrane Final Tour CD set, just issued by Sony. Those historic concerts from Paris, Copenhagen, and Stockholm were all recorded in concert venues, not smoky jazz clubs, just like classical music. They were part of Granz’s brilliant JATP presentations, which brought new-found respect and recognition for jazz musicians, both in the U.S. and in Europe.

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Granz picked the best musicians for JATP—all-stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Lester Young, and Nat “King” Cole, just to name a few. JATP began as a benefit concert in 1944 at the Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. Its commercial and critical success led to additional concerts and tours with varying rosters of top-tier talent. Granz also decided to record the performances for later album releases. He licensed some recordings to Mercury Records and released others on his own record labels, including Verve Records, in the 1940’s and 50’s.

In the 1980’s, Verve issued an archival JATP series with previously unreleased material from its vaults. I remember my excitement in receiving the first of the previously-unissued performances back then when I was on Morning Becomes Eclectic. I featured tenor sax player Lester Young’s jam session at Carnegie Hall from 1946, “Carnegie Blues.” I’d never heard the Pres sounding better, probably because he was flanked by tenor greats Illinois Jacquet and Coleman Hawkins in this superb twelve-bar blues, all eleven minutes of it.

I was happy to learn that Verve Records and Universal Music have just reissued three of the out-of-print 1980’s releases on vinyl, including a new edition of Lester Young Carnegie Blues. The LP includes highlights from JATP shows recorded in 1946, 1953, and 1957. The rhythm section is stellar, with Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis, guitar, Ray Brown or Al McKibbon on bass, and J.C. Heard or Jo Jones playing drums. The players are relaxed, the crowds are enjoying it all, and it’s great to re-experience these historic nights at Carnegie Hall.

Norman Granz championed Ella Fitzgerald throughout his long career as a producer and founder of many labels, and their singer-producer relationship began with JATP. Verve/Universal’s second reissue from the 1980’s archival series is the gatefold Jazz at the Philharmonic: The Ella Fitzgerald Set. The updated double vinyl set expands on the original 1983 album to match the 2016 CD edition, with over 20 songs recorded in 1949, 1953, and 1957. Fitzgerald performs classics like “Perdido,” “Oh Lady be Good!,” “Black Coffee,” and her first breakthrough hit “A-Tisket A-Tasket.”

The First Lady of Song is backed by top sax and brass musicians Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, and Flip Phillips, plus Ray Brown on bass, and Buddy Rich on drums. Granz comes on stage to introduce the musicians, a small formality that showed great respect for the artists and for the audience as well. The 1952 photo at right shows Norman Granz on tour with JATP stars, including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and Lester Young.

The third JATP reissue, Jazz at the Philharmonic: Blues in Chicago 1955, features a single concert recorded on October 2, 1955, at the Chicago Opera House. The 1955 JATP tour of the U.S. stretched from Hartford, Connecticut to San Diego, California. The jam sessions recorded that night show how having musicians travel and play many concerts together on tours created camaraderie, bonding, and a musical telepathy. Each musician could get to know and appreciate what the others were doing, something far beyond a few rehearsals for a studio date could engender. Led by pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, the group also included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge, among others.

These JATP recordings offer a timeless snapshot of some of the greatest live jazz sets ever done in concert hall settings, and it’s obvious that Verve/Universal has taken an artisanal approach in reissuing these historic live sessions to appeal to audiophiles, jazz lovers, and vinyl fans. The reissues have received the gold-star treatment, with custom-pressed and heavy vinyl (140g instead of the usual 120g). The audio is sourced from the original analog tapes, mastered by Ian Sefchick at Capitol Studios and (for the Ella set) mastered by Seth Foster at Universal Mastering Studios-East. The beautiful packaging, photos, posters, and liner notes also attest to the loving care these records have been given. Whether you are an audiophile, jazz lover, vinyl junkie, or jazz newbie, these sets will bring many hours of listening pleasure.

(Norman Granz carousel image: William P. Gottleib via The Library of Congress)