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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.

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.
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