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Ella Plays Dice


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Ella Fitzgerald was eating a piece of pie when the police burst into her dressing room, guns drawn. The place was Houston, Texas. The date was October 7, 1955. The occasion was a sold-out concert at The Music Hall, one stop on tour for Jazz At The Philharmonic.
Ella Fitzgerald was eating a piece of pie when the police burst into her dressing room, guns drawn. Nearby, Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet were playing a game of craps. The place was Houston, Texas. The date was October 7, 1955. The occasion was a sold-out concert at The Music Hall, one stop on tour for Jazz At The Philharmonic.

Standing in the wings while Gene Krupa's band performed on stage, tour producer Norman Granz heard the commotion behind him. He hurried to Ella's dressing room where he found several undercover vice cops in the process of arresting Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Jacquet, and Ella's personal assistant Georgiana Henry.

"I rushed over and asked what was going on," Granz recounted to his biographer. "[The police] said, 'You're under arrest too because you're managing the gambling.'" Granz spotted one detective heading toward Fitzgerald's bathroom. He moved to block the policeman's path, figuring the cop might be on his way to plant drugs in the bathroom. The cop asked angrily what he was doing, and Granz responded. "I said, 'I'm just watching you to see whether you try to plant any shit.' He got furious and said, 'I ought to shoot you.' He put the gun in my stomach... And I said, 'Well, if you're gonna shoot me, I mean, shoot me.'"

No one present in the dressing room thought for a moment that this raid had anything to do with dice.

Norman Granz, Impresario

From its inception, Jazz At The Philharmonic courted controversy. Created in 1944, JATP had its roots in the fight against racial discrimination. Its founder, Norman Granz, was as committed to challenging racism as he was to bringing top quality music to the public.

Born in Los Angeles, in 1918, Norman Granz was the son of poor Jewish immigrants. His first language was Yiddish. He attended Hebrew school. When Granz was a teenager, his best friend introduced him to modern drama, leftist political philosophy, folk music, blues and jazz. After high school he got a job as a clerk at the Los Angeles Stock Exchange where he encountered blatant anti-Semitism. Always working to scrape together enough to live, Granz attended UCLA on and off for a couple of years. He studied economics and read voraciously. More and more, however, his passion was jazz.

As Granz was coming of age, during the 1930s and early 1940s, there were two distinct jazz scenes in Los Angeles: one on Central Avenue, cultural heart of the African American community, and another in Hollywood.

Central Avenue, with a plethora of nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, bars, and theaters, was home to a thriving local jazz community, its clubs featuring homegrown greats like Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, Gerald Wilson, and Benny Carter. The Avenue also drew visiting music royalty, such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, who played and stayed there when in town. On any night, after-hours jam sessions might include Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Art Pepper, and Teddy Wilson.

At a time when racial segregation was still legal and widely practiced, the Central Avenue scene was integrated—on the bandstand and in the audience. Hollywood celebrities, both black and white, showed up. Ava Gardner, Bing Crosby, Mae West, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Lana Turner were some of the stars who made the scene.

Nightclubs in Hollywood, on the other hand, were segregated. Black bands might occasionally play, but audiences were strictly white. On one occasion, Billie Holiday wept when friends who had come to hear her sing at a Hollywood club were turned away at the door due to their race.

Also segregated were most unions, including the two Los Angeles musicians' union locals. Members of all-white Local 47 got the well-paying movie studio recording work, while members of black Local 767 were stuck with the lower-paying jobs.

Norman Granz became a regular at both the Central Avenue and Hollywood clubs. Still going to college and working, he stayed late into the night listening to music, and eventually befriending many of the musicians. He bonded especially closely with pianist-singer Nat King Cole, and drummer Lee Young. And he became romantically involved with African American dancer and singer, Marie Bryant.

At the age of 24, Granz transformed himself from fan to impresario. The year was 1942. The two segregated musicians' union locals had banded together and won their long struggle to force L.A. club owners to close one night a week. Now performers were assured a much-needed night off each week during their contracted engagements, which could run three to four months at a time. The musicians were delighted to have a free night. Often, they chose to jam informally together in their new spare time.

With this in mind, Granz approached Billy Berg, owner of the Trouville Club in Hollywood, with an idea. Berg was known to be cautiously pro-integration. Granz proposed to produce a weekly jam session at the Trouville, mixing local talent and visiting soloists on Sunday afternoons, the day the club was officially dark. His proposal included three key components: All musicians would be paid union scale or higher; the show format would be one of listening, not dancing, so that the music could be appreciated in an atmosphere of respect; and finally, the club would be 100% integrated—customers of all races would be welcome, and they could sit where and with whom they pleased.

Oh, one other thing, Granz added: if the first jam session was successful and Berg scheduled more, the Trouville would abide by the same non-discrimination guidelines for all nights of the week.

After some hesitation, Berg agreed.

Next, Granz got the approval of both unions. Then he put on the first show. The lineup included brothers Lee and Lester Young and the Nat King Cole Trio. It was a huge success. The Sunday jam sessions took off. And the Trouville was integrated.

Pianist Jimmy Rowles remembers, "We had what we called the Big Sunday Afternoon Jam Session—Norman's shows. Whenever there would be bands in town—Lunceford, Basie or Ellington—it was a roaring joint. It was ferocious." The Los Angeles black-owned newspaper, the California Eagle, noted, "Nice thing about the Trouville, you and I are welcome there.... There's Ben Webster coming up to the bandstand. Oh look, there's Trummy Young, Willie Smith... The whole thing is solid kicks and knocking us to our knees."

A few months after starting the Sunday Jam Sessions, Norman Granz received his draft notice and reported for duty.

But Granz wasn't going to let a little thing like military service stop his quest for great music and fair play. First, he used his connections to arrange concerts by the Nat King Cole Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra on his base in Texas. Next, he decided to do something about the unequal facilities and treatment afforded black soldiers who were barred from the whites-only rec room and post exchange, and were housed in sub-standard accommodations. Out on a day pass, Granz bought a stack of jazz records, then went to the black soldiers' quarters to hang out with the men and listen to music. This did not go over well with most of his superiors.

One commanding officer, however, recommended Granz for officer training. When Granz was turned down, that officer told him "off the record" it was because he fraternized with black soldiers. Granz discovered that because he had been turned down from officer training for no stated reason, he could petition to leave the service. He did. Less than a year after reporting for duty, Norman Granz received a discharge from the Army.

The black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel ran a story about Granz's return home. "The Army, we imagine, was pretty glad to get rid of Norman... It is interesting to note the change in the white boy. Before he went in the Army, he was fairly militant on the race question... But now, there is no Negro soldier returning from training in Texas or Mississippi, whose resentment against American fascism is deeper dyed than Norman's. He is bitter."

Bitter, perhaps. Determined, definitely. Granz got back in the saddle, producing enormously popular—and very profitable—integrated jam sessions at various venues around Los Angeles. Seeing the money to be made on their "dark" night, club owner after club owner followed the lead of Billy Berg's Trouville, promoting their jam sessions...and ending decades of racial segregation in club after club.

Then Norman Granz heard about the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. And the more he learned about it, the more he realized he needed to get involved. His association with the case would change his life, and alter the course of jazz history.

Sleepy Lagoon

Sleepy Lagoon, a water-filled gravel pit near the L.A. River in southeast Los Angeles, was a popular swimming hole and hangout for Mexican-American youth in the 1940s. On the morning of August 2, 1942, Jose Diaz was discovered unconscious and dying by the side of the road at the lagoon. An autopsy showed high levels of alcohol. Cause of death was revealed to be blunt head trauma. But the cause of the head trauma was never determined, and no murder weapon was ever found. The investigation revealed that Diaz had been in an argument with members of a rival gang earlier that evening. Police rounded up 600 Mexican-American youth from around the city in a mass dragnet that would today be considered blatant racial profiling. Eventually, seventeen members of the 38th Street Gang were indicted in the murder of Jose Diaz.

What followed was the largest mass trial in the history of California. While in court, the defendants were not allowed to sit near or communicate with their attorneys. The judge ordered the defendants not to change clothes or cut their hair so that the jury could see them every day in their "zoot suits" and pompadours—fashions associated with rebellious Latino youth culture of the day. An official from the sheriff's department was allowed to testify as an expert witness that the ancient Aztec practice of human sacrifice proved that Mexicans had a biological propensity to "blood-thirst," crime, and killing.

The jury found five of the defendants guilty of assault, and twelve guilty of murder. All were sent to jail or prison. Immediately, their sentences were appealed. The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee was formed to raise funds for the appeal and to raise public awareness about the ethnically-biased, unfair trial.

The cause of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants attracted Hollywood celebrities including Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Anthony Quinn, and Henry Fonda. When Norman Granz heard about the case, he knew he wanted to help. "There were so many kids accused that it smacked of a prejudice case," Granz said. "This was a chance to try out one of my ideas which was to put on a jazz concert at Philharmonic Auditorium." Granz got together with the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee and planned a benefit concert.

On July 2, 1944, two thousand people crammed into Philharmonic Auditorium, home of the symphony-playing Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, to hear some jazz. The audience was enthusiastic, ethnically diverse, and mostly young. Up on the bandstand, Nat King Cole, Buddy Rich, Lee Young, Illinois Jacquet, Red Callender, Les Paul, and others jammed in a series of ensemble sets. They played ballads, blues, swing, and wailing upbeat numbers. The concert raised $1,000 for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee—a sizeable amount for that time. Defense Committee secretary Alice McGrath declared, "The concert was a tremendous success in every way. It was one of the highlights of the whole campaign."

Three months after the concert, the California Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the guilty verdicts for all the Sleepy Lagoon defendants.

Jazz At The Philharmonic was "a milestone in jazz history," asserted filmmaker Jean Bach who had attended the event. Guitarist Les Paul noted, "That concert made Norman Granz."

On the road

Granz took Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) on the road. In keeping with the philosophy of his Sunday jam sessions, the show's conceit was that jazz deserved the same level of appreciation and listening attention as classical music. Playing regionally, and then coast-to-coast, he brought together top musicians of the day, featuring both swing and bebop in unique, innovative, must-see concerts. Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Oscar Peterson all joined up with JATP at one time or another. "I give people in Des Moines and El Paso the kind of jazz they could never otherwise hear," the impresario declared.

As always, Granz did not tolerate racial discrimination at his concerts. A clause in the JATP contract with each venue stated, "It is the essence of this agreement that there is to be no discrimination whatsoever in the sale of tickets, and that there is to be no segregation of whites from Negroes. In the event of any violation of either of these provisions by you, the management of the hall, or anyone else, Mr. Granz has the privilege of refusing to give you the concert, in which case you will forfeit one-half of the contract price to him."

If a promoter did not agree to abide by these terms, Granz would not book the show.

In another groundbreaking move, Granz recorded some of the JATP concerts, putting out a series of live LPs at a time when conventional wisdom in the recording industry was that live recordings did not sell. Conventional wisdom was wrong. JATP made millions for Granz. He paid the musicians well. As noted in music magazine Metronome, "His salaries are probably the highest in the history of jazz. It's safe to say that his men average two and three times as much a week working for Granz as they would playing in nightclubs elsewhere. It's been said that one performer's nightly salary with Granz equaled one week's work at a top nightclub."

It wasn't until 1949, five years after Jazz At The Philharmonic debuted, that Norman Granz approached the tremendously talented and popular Ella Fitzgerald, to join the JATP team.

Ella Fitzgerald

Born in 1917, Ella Fitzgerald was raised by her mother and stepfather in Yonkers, New York. When she was fifteen, her mother died in a car accident. Ella lived in her stepfather's home for a short while, then moved in with an aunt in Harlem. Her mother's sudden death, and her changing life circumstances, were hard on teenage Ella. She began skipping school, hanging out on the streets, getting in trouble with the police. She was sent to a girls' reformatory. By the age of seventeen Ella Fitzgerald was homeless.

But things were about to change. While still homeless, Ella entered an amateur talent contest and won first place. The prize included cash and a one-week stint singing at the Apollo Theater. However, due to Ella's disheveled appearance, the Apollo management did not allow her take the stage. It was a bitter disappointment. Soon though, she won another talent contest. This time the prize included a chance to perform at the Harlem Opera House. And this time Ella Fitzgerald did take the stage. Word of Fitzgerald's incredible talent spread quickly. It wasn't long before she became the featured singer with the Chick Webb Orchestra, a top swing band in the 1930s. She eventually led her own band, then went solo. Her amazing singing voice—her pure tone and creative phrasing—won her national fame. She recorded hit after hit, including her million-selling novelty tune "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" (which she co-wrote).

By the early 1940s, Ella Fitzgerald was a major star. Her records topped the charts. Her live performances drew sell-out crowds. Shy and reserved in her private life, on stage she was beloved not just for her incredible voice, but for her sweet and gentle personality.

After World War II, swing music began to give way to modern jazz and bebop. Large jazz orchestras were being replaced by smaller bands. Ella took on the challenge of adapting to the new music. She adjusted her vocal style, most notably adding a form of improvisation know as "scat singing" to her performances. Bop versions of "How High The Moon" and "Flying Home" became two of her signature numbers.

Ella was touring with Dizzy Gillespie's band, packing nightclubs across the U.S. and in Europe, when she was approached by Norman Granz to join Jazz At The Philharmonic. Ready for new musical and life adventures, she said yes. The collaboration clicked right away. Ella became a JATP regular, one of its biggest draws, and a crowd-pleasing showstopper.

While financially and critically successful, JATP tours were not without controversy. Granz's outspoken stance on civil rights, backed up by his zero tolerance for racial discrimination, did more than ruffle a few feathers—especially in the American South. After a 1954 performance in Charleston, North Carolina, for instance, JATP performers had to surreptitiously flee the venue, just barely avoiding an angry mob of whites who waited for them outside the hall.

So, when Granz booked a 1955 concert in Houston, Texas, he and all the performers knew there might be trouble.

Houston was a segregated town. Although segregation had been declared illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court a year earlier, much of the South paid no heed. The night of the concert at the Houston Music Hall, Granz personally inspected the premises, removing "Whites Only" and "Negro" signs from above the bathroom doors. He stood at the box office as tickets were sold. When white customers complained that they wanted to change seats because they were seated next to a black patron, Granz told them they could have their money back, but they could not change seats.

The sold-out concert was going smoothly, when Granz heard the commotion in Ella's dressing room and rushed back. Now he stood face to face with a vice cop, a gun pointed at his stomach.

"The whole thing was just jive," Granz stated later. "They [didn't] like the idea that we'd 'mix' everything because...if you could prove that black and white could sit next to each other, you could break up a lot of shit down there."

The cop did not shoot. But Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Jacquet, Granz, and Henry were all arrested for gambling. Before they could be taken to the police station for booking, however, Granz alerted the Music Hall manager. "You've got three thousand people sitting in the hall and you've got three thousand people coming in for the second show," he warned. "You're gonna have the biggest uprising you ever had, because I'm going to go out onstage and tell them the concert is canceled, and I'm going to tell them why it's canceled."

With the threat of a possible riot, the police agreed to wait until the first show was completed before taking the performers down to the station. They promised to return them in time for the second show.

When the arrestees arrived at the station, they were met by a throng of reporters and photographers. All five were booked and fingerprinted. Bail was set at $10 per person, and a trial date was fixed. Granz paid the bail, and, as promised, the performers were returned to the concert hall for their second sold-out show of the night.

The next morning newspaper headlines shouted, "Guys' and Dolls' Dice Bit," and "Houston Dice Cops Give Ella and Boys a Bad Shake." The Houston Post commented, "Miss Fitzgerald, wearing a décolleté gown of blue taffeta and a mink stole, was one of the most handsomely dressed women ever to visit the Houston Police Station." The accompanying photo shows Fitzgerald, Henry, Jacquet and Gillespie seated on a bench at the police station. While the others seem to be joking around, Ella appears gloomy and annoyed. (Charges against all five were eventually dropped.)

When asked by reporters about her arrest, Ella Fitzgerald, Queen of Jazz, replied, "What is there to say? I was only having a piece of pie and a cup of coffee."

Houston 1955

According to saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, a Houston native who was one of those arrested at the Music Hall, the night's events had a definite effect on racism in his home town: from that time on, nightclubs around the city became noticeably more tolerant and open to integrated audiences. "I'm proud of what I did because I had no choice," Jacquet said. "I wanted to do it for the younger people that were coming up. Whatever I could do to improve our standards of life. I thought that was the appropriate thing to do, and it worked."

As for Ella Fitzgerald and Norman Granz, October 7, 1955, in Houston would become one memorable—and meaningful—night in a decades-long relationship that would in many ways define both of their careers.

Granz became Fitzgerald's manager in 1954. Combining his business savvy with her musical genius, they produced some of the most beloved recordings in the history of American popular music. He was instrumental in bringing together the First Lady of Song with the Ambassador of Jazz, Louis Armstrong. Their 1956 album of duets, Ella and Louis, is considered a pinnacle of 20th Century popular music. Granz also arranged for Ella to tour Europe, and he produced live recordings of those tours. Ella In Berlin, in which she brings down the house with her cleverly improvised "Mack The Knife," is perhaps her most acclaimed LP.

Granz also produced a series of eight classic "Songbook" albums, in which Ella's incomparable voice and interpretive skills are paired with the legendary songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern.

"Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians," wrote New York Times columnist Frank Rich. "She performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis's contemporaneous integration of white and African-American soul."

Ira Gershwin remarked, "I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them."

Jazz At The Philharmonic continued until 1983. Granz and Fitzgerald continued their collaboration for over 40 years. She died in 1996. He died in 2001. The music lives on.

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