For nearly half a century, Verve Records has stood as one of jazz's most respected and influential institutions, playing a seminal role in the music's development as a recorded art form while working tirelessly to help expand its audience.
Verve Records was originally the product of the vision of Norman Granz, a crucial figure whose innovations forever altered the face of jazz. In the final stages of World War II, as the Swing Era began to wind down, Granz, then in his mid-twenties, was working as a film editor at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. But his real passion was music.
Granz became a jazz pioneer on July 2, 1944, when he presented Jazz at the Philharmonic at Los Angeles' Philharmonic Hall. The all-star show marked one of the first instances of jazz being presented in the rarefied environs of a concert hall rather than a smoky nightclub or rowdy dance hall. At the time, the presentation of jazz as a legitimate art form, rather than accompaniment for dancing and carousing, was a revolutionary concept. The concert also was a harbinger of a new approach in live jazz presentation, the repertory package tour, and laid the groundwork for the establishment of Verve.
Jam sessions were a common element of live performances in the Big Band Era, as much for the benefit of the participating musicians as for the audience, providing relief for the musicians who often felt restricted by written arrangements. But those jam sessions, like other live performances of the era, generally lived on only in the memories of those present. Radio stations and networks would make transcriptions of remote broadcasts from ballrooms, but only for later broadcast, never with public release in mind. One reason was the three-to-five-minute limit of a 78 rpm record side; the other was that canning live music for home consumption simply did not occur to anyone—at least not until Norman Granz came along.
As it happened, Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic show had been recorded for the Armed Forces Radio Service for overseas broadcast to GIs, but the recordings were simply too exciting to keep from the general listening public. So, in 1946, Granz made arrangements with future Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, to issue the first Philharmonic concert on Asch's Disc label. That release offered home listeners the new experience of hearing extended solos, with the musicians egged on by the roar of the audience. By the time the long-playing record album was introduced to the marketplace a few years later, the landmark Jazz at the Philharmonic release was already a part of American record buyers' vocabulary.
By the late 1940s, Granz was steadily expanding his jazz empire. Producing two all-star JATP concert tours per year, Granz broke from societal convention by teaming black and white musicians and refusing to submit to segregation while traveling, insisting that his racially integrated ensembles be treated with respect commensurate with their talent.
In 1948, Granz signed a five-year distribution contract with Mercury Records for his newly established label, Clef. After the Mercury deal expired, Granz set up independent distribution for Clef and set up a series of specialized subsidiary to release the artists he was signing.
In 1956, Granz formed Verve Records and moved all of his recordings to the Verve catalog. By now, long-playing records had replaced 78s as listeners' format of choice, and—thanks in large part to ten years' worth of ongoing Jazz at the Philharmonic releases—the public was accustomed to extended live performances on record.
With its adventurous recording policy and huge roster of disparate artists, Verve boasted a virtual who's-who of the postwar jazz world. Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Kid Ory, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Gerry Mulligan, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Illinois Jacquet, Art Tatum, Flip Phillips, and Teddy Wilson all recorded for Verve. The Verve roster would also come to include such world-class vocalists as Ella Fitzgerald, whose career experienced a remarkable artistic rebirth under Granz's stewardship, Anita O'Day, Nina Simone, Mel Torme and Blossom Dearie.
Although Verve would play a substantial role in popularizing the LP format and stereo recording, the quality that really set Verve apart was Granz's open-minded musical philosophy. Granz's refusal to recognize artificially imposed stylistic boundaries helped to create an environment in which the musicians could fulfill their artistic potential, and resulted in a series of inspired collaborations between players with widely divergent backgrounds.
In late 1960, after sixteen remarkably productive years at Verve's helm, Granz sold the label to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the company that had employed him during his days in the film industry.
While Granz moved on to other musical projects, Verve continued to thrive throughout the remainder of the decade. Under the leadership of noted producer Creed Taylor, Verve continued to expand its musical base, combining pure jazz with a wide array of sounds designed for wider appeal. By now, Verve was large enough to accommodate the variety and Taylor, though essentially a jazz producer, made the most of the opportunity. He helped to introduce guitarist Wes Montgomery, organist Jimmy Smith, and vibist Cal Tjader to broader audiences with expanded arrangements, while broadening tenor saxist Stan Getz’s following with gentle bossa nova beats, as exemplified by his popular collaborations with Antonio Carlos Jobim and João and Astrud Gilberto.
As rock music took an adventurous, exploratory turn in the 1960s, the Verve roster—which had already expanded to include such departures as the trenchant political humor of Mort Sahl—opened to a diverse array of acts from across the rock and pop spectrum, including Ricky Nelson, the Righteous Brothers, The Velvet Underground, Richie Havens, Janis Ian, The Blues Project and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
In 1972, MGM sold its record labels to Polydor, bringing Verve into PolyGram's international family of labels. While European and Japanese divisions of Verve reissued important albums from the catalog during the Seventies and Eighties, and the American division began its own program in 1981, it took the advent of the compact disc to return Verve to active fulltime duty. Since then, Verve has continued to pursue the Herculean task of digitally upgrading its massive album catalog, an effort that continues to yield impressive results to this day. But the preservation of its storied legacy is only one element of Verve Records' present-day mission.
In recent years, Verve has continued to release vital new music by revered veterans like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, John Scofield, Charlie Haden, John McLaughlin, Kenny Barron, Roy Hargrove and Joe Sample, while nurturing jazz's future through the work of such remarkable rising talents as Regina Carter, Nicholas Payton, Chris Potter, Christian MacBride, Danilo Perez and Kurt Rosenwinkel. At the same time, Verve continues to service a growing listening audience, as evidenced by the remarkable crossover successes of Diana Krall and Natalie Cole, who continue the Verve tradition of great vocalists along with such celebrated labelmates as Cassandra Wilson, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Verve's vital combination of respect for the past and a drive towards the future is demonstrated by its much-discussed 2002 release Verve Remixed, on today's hottest DJs and remixers try their hand at classic vocal performances from the label’s vaults; that release was accompanied by Verve Unmixed, which presents the same songs in their original versions for the benefit of new listeners.
With the merger of PolyGram with Universal Music in January 1999, Verve Records became the hub of the Verve Music Group, which also encompasses the influential labels GRP, Impulse! and Blue Thumb labels, and oversees the jazz catalogs of several other Universal-owned labels, including Commodore, Chess, Decca, Brunswick, Argo, Cadet, Dot, Coral, Decca, ABC-Paramount, A&M, Mercury, Philips and Polydor. Within that Verve Music Group structure, under the leadership of Chairman Tommy LiPuma and CEO/President, Ron Goldstein, Verve Records continues to honor Norman Granz's original vision. While its lengthy and distinguished history encompasses a remarkable array of the most celebrated recordings in America's jazz canon, Verve Records continues to evolve with the times as it always has, constantly reinventing and reinvigorating itself with the infusion of fresh new talent. Now, with jazz reaching a broader audience than ever before, Verve is a stronger musical and social force than ever, preserving its remarkable legacy while building towards a distinctly bright future.