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Ella Plays Dice

Eve Goldberg By

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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.

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