Ella Plays Dice

Eve Goldberg By

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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.
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