Ella Plays Dice

Eve Goldberg By

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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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