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Ella Plays Dice

Eve Goldberg By

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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."
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