Neranenah Honors Jewish Music Industry Heroes

Neranenah Honors Jewish Music Industry Heroes

Two concerts by the music festival salute jazz pioneer Norman Granz and the Chess brothers.

Joe Alterman, the executive director of Neranenah, introduced the Chess concert. // Credit: Jason Born
Joe Alterman, the executive director of Neranenah, introduced the Chess concert. // Credit: Jason Born

Neranenah, Atlanta’s Jewish music festival, celebrated the career of jazz impresario Norman Granz with a stellar concert Thursday evening, April 28.

The concert, which had been postponed several times because of the pandemic, brought together famed Jewish jazz pianist Benny Green, renowned drummer Jeff Hamilton and veteran bass player John Clayton. Both Clayton and Hamilton worked with Granz, who died in 2001, during the later years of his career.

Over a long career that began in the mid-1940s, Granz promoted concerts all over the world for many of the greatest names in jazz, including Count Basie, Stan Getz, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge. Beginning in 1944, he began organizing formal concerts he called Jazz at the Philharmonic and, in a few years, was producing some of the first commercial recordings of the concerts for the newly invented long playing (LP) vinyl record.

Norman Granz was Ella Fitzgerald’s personal manager for nearly 50 years.

The recordings and concerts are largely credited with revolutionizing the way jazz was heard and appreciated in the postwar years.

In 1949, Granz brought Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist who was then a 24-year-old Canadian, to the United States for his first concert. For the next 50 years, he recorded the legendary musician and served as his personal manager.

Peterson’s daughter, Céline, introduced the program with Green, who was her father’s prodigy, in a prerecorded video. The concert, she emphasized, was in appreciation of Granz’s considerable legacy.

“He never took for granted the power that he worked so hard to build when it came to championing the music that he loved and believed in and the people who made it,” she said.

Phil Chess with blues musicians Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Bo Diddley.

For nearly a half-century, Granz personally managed the career of the immortal jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and created the Verve record label to record her and many of the other stars he promoted during the 1950s. The recordings Fitzgerald made in 1956 of the music of Cole Porter, for example, were a smash hit, as were her recorded performances with trumpeter and sometime-vocalist Louis Armstrong. These records quickly established Verve as an important leader in the jazz world.

The Granz concert was put together by Joe Alterman, executive director of Neranenah and a nationally known jazz pianist in his own right. Alterman has focused on creating programming that recognizes the important contributions to American popular music made by Jewish musicians, composers and other creative figures. That’s been his goal, Alterman later pointed out in an interview, right from the beginning, four years ago, when he took over the leadership of the music festival.

Joe Alterman joined Benny Green at the piano for a rousing finale to the Granz concert. // Credit: Stephanie Heath

“I remember even my first year, I said, ‘I don’t want to just highlight a musician because they happen to be Jewish.’ I want to highlight, in this case, important Jewish figures in American music because their Jewish stories are fascinating. They’re really important to the history of American music, and world culture.”

Granz not only broadened and popularized the appreciation of jazz by U.S. audiences but was also a pioneer in promoting concerts that helped desegregate American music. One of the first was a New York nightclub performance by Billie Holiday sometime in the 1940s. Granz insisted that the audience be racially integrated, a rarity for the time. Throughout his career, in fact, he refused to promote any performance that was not open to all.

In her opening remarks, Céline Peterson mentioned this as being one of Granz’s greatest accomplishments.

“He truly believed that it was his responsibility to keep the musicians that worked with him safe and keep them working amidst some of the most unimaginable circumstances at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I grew up hearing stories of touring on the road and some of the troubles that were completely unimaginable. He didn’t just talk the talk when it came to equality and justice, he walked the walk,” she said.

The ATL Collective honored the Chess brothers, Phil and Leonard, during a performance in Sandy Springs. // Credit: Jason Born

The Granz program was part of a Neranenah historical music doubleheader that began on Sunday, April 23 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. The ATL Collective presented a concert about a pair of music pioneers, Phil and Leonard Chess, who were Polish Jewish immigrant brothers in the Chicago music scene.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, their record label, Chess Records, was the first to record and promote the music of African American performers like Etta James, Chuck Berry, Ramsey Lewis, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Ahmad Jamal and many others. Alterman is gratified by the support he’s received for both performances and hopes to offer much more of the same.

“Both of these shows are representative of exactly what I’m going for, exactly what I want to continue doing,” he said. “I’m encouraged by how much people are enjoying the concerts and actually finding them not just good concerts, but actually meaningful experiences. I want to do more of that.”

read more: