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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2

Karl Ackermann By

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More than two-thousand people attended the show and the crowd was unusually diverse, lining up to see J.J. Johnson, Illinois Jacquet, and members of the Les Paul group, among many other lesser known names. Granz pushed the musicians to play extended versions of their numbers and the audience reaction was boisterous, further inspiring the musicians to give something extra. The success of the improvised show implanted the concept for Granz's later jam session formats. The success extended to financial rewards as well, contributing a significant amount to what was labeled the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. The resulting trial in 1944 turned around the convictions of the San Quentin nine.

This was not to be Granz's only brush with defending victims of discrimination. One of the more notable incidents occurred at a concert in Houston, Texas in October, 1955. Houston was—at that time—a city entrenched in white rule and with a police department that answered to the governing demographic. Granz knew the inherent dangers of Black artists performing in the Deep South but he was also aware of the city's wealth and appetite for jazz music. It was an opportunity that couldn't be ignored when Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour program included prominent names such as Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa and Lester Young. Granz met with a representative of the Houston Music Hall to ensure that all signage related to segregated seated and bathrooms be removed before the performance. As a result, he later had to absorb the cost of returning ticket money to White audience members who refused to sit next to Blacks. What he would not do was re-seat these disgruntled patrons to appease their racially driven preferences.

One of the sets on that evening's card featured Ella Fitzgerald, her pianist John Lewis, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie. Fitzgerald's cousin, Georgiana Henry, accompanied the singer as an assistant. Before they took the stage, Jacquet and Gillespie passed the time, off-stage, in a low-stakes game of shooting dice while Fitzgerald and Henry shared a piece of pie. Granz insisted that what happened next was a set-up, probably initiated by someone working with, or for, the Houston Music Hall. Though the door to the stage's waiting room was unlocked, Houston City Police broke down it down, charging in with guns drawn in a histrionic and laughable display of law and order. Fitzgerald, Lewis, Jacquet, Gillespie and Henry were arrested as was Granz when he intervened, demonstrating that politics and panic were not mutually exclusive. Granz posted bail for the group and later spent thousands of dollars in order to have the charges against the performers dropped.

An Underdog with a Cause

In the midst of an unprecedented year of releases that included Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia), Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia), John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic) and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic), 1959 was the year that Charles Mingus weighed in on the Civil Rights movement with his historic Mingus Ah Um (Columbia) and—in particular—"Fables of Faubus," a musical indictment of then Arkansas Governor, Orval Eugene Faubus.

In 1957, and in defiance of the well-known US Supreme Court integration ruling (Brown v. Board of Education), Governor Faubus refused to comply with the Court's order to stop the segregation of the Little Rock, AR School District. Faubus called out the state's National Guard to block nine black students from entering the Little Rock Central High School. President Dwight D. Eisenhower countered by assuming federal control of the Arkansas National Guard and ordering them to stand down. Eisenhower sent in one-thousand paratroopers to ensure that students were given safe passage into the school. Faubus was not deterred and rather than integrate the Arkansas schools, he ordered them shut down for the 1958-1959 school year. He was elected to six additional terms, a reflection of Arkansas' populist sentiment against integration.

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