There are coffee table books and there is Verve: The Sound of America. It’s a sprawling, meticulously researched account of Norman Ganz’ iconic label. Ganz’ vision was to take jazz from the concert hall and into the loungeroom of America. It was a label that actively courted mainstream acceptance for jazz, balancing populism with cutting edge, and in doing so was instrumental in breaking down barriers and elevating the genre into the consciousness of America and the world.
A quick roll call of some of the artists featured on the label (and in this book) is without doubt some of most important exponents of the genre, the likes of Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Jimmy Smith, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Sonny Stitt, Cal Tjader, Willie Bobo, Herbie Mann, Lalo Schifrin, Kenny Burrell, Lester Young, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, and Lionel Hampton amongst numerous others.
Author Richard Havers is at pains to link the contextual social and political circumstances of the times with the establishment and subsequent development of the label. He charts jazz’ birth in New Orleans, before tapping into Ganz’ early labels and work as a concert promoter for Jazz at the Philharmonic Series that would eventually travel worldwide. He clearly articulates Ganz’ aforementioned desire to get the music from the clubs to the concert halls and subsequently the lounge rooms of America, fighting racism and subjugation along the way, doing strange things like paying the artists and building their careers.
What’s revealed is not just Ganz’ savvy business sense, but his uncompromising dedication to the music, recording in places with artists he wanted to record, and signing late career artists like Ella Fitzgerald and bringing them back to the top of the charts when it seemed like the world had passed them by. Ganz eventually sold Verve to MGM for a cool $2.5 million and the label was taken over by Creed Taylor, before losing it’s way a little in the late 60′ signing Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention for their first album Freak Out and Velvet Underground & Nico’ debut album alongside some significantly less iconic rockers.
Whilst by 1969 when Taylor left, Verve was basically a historical label, diluted by its lack of focus, more recently there’ been something of a resurgence with the Verve remixed series, Herbie Hancock’ Grammy for the Joni Letters and releases from the likes of Diana Krall and Trombone Shorty.
With a breathless introduction from Herbie Hancock, who suggests that the music of Verve will never die, as â€œit documents the lifeblood of our culture,â€ this truly is a remarkable book. With gorgeous archival photographs, images of almost every Verve release (including 45′) and specific sections designated for many of the aforementioned artists detailing their career and focussing on one key album, it’s overwhelming in its scope, and impossible to read all at once. It’s presented so well, with such loving attention to detail you can almost forgive its wilful ignorance of Columbia, Blue Note, Impulse, Atlantic and other labels, many of whom shared many of Verve’ artists at various points. Verve is not the only American jazz label, but there’ no denying it is one of the most important. At 400 pages, even those with a passing interest in jazz will find something here, whether it’s the iconic period photographs, the amazing record covers, the introduction to new artists, or the story of one man’ vision to bring jazz to the masses, this really is something special.