A Moment in Time: Houston, 1955 — The “Jazz at the Philharmonic” dice game bust

May 10th, 2014

Photo Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library
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Ella Fitzgerald, her assistant and cousin Georgiana Henry, Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie, following a October 7, 1955 bust for a dice game that was held backstage at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Houston. 

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Racial harassment of touring jazz musicians was common throughout the South.  Tad Hershorn, author of Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice, tells the story of a racial incident provoked by Granz’s insistence on challenging segregation in Houston.  

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As in 1954, Jazz at the Philharmonic’s 1955 tour included a racial incident in a southern city that was provoked by Granz’s integrationist policy: in this case, a trumped-up gambling arrest backstage at Houston’s Music Hall during an October 7, 1955, double-header that made headlines internationally, Granz later said he wanted to challenge segregation in the South even more than he wanted to deliver good music, and Houston’s wealth and power made it an especially tempting target. “Usually a city that’s very rich is difficult to break and change tradition. The people who run things, the rich whites, could come on as strong as they wanted, and the police department would of course agree with that. Their point is, ‘Don’t come here.’ But I wanted to play one southern city where, being a rich city, we had a chance to sell out.”

Granz met with the ticket taker and worked out what would be printed on the tickets. He advised the man that there was to be no discrimination in the sale of tickets, that Jazz at the Philharmonic was an integrated show. “I’m not sure that it registered with him because he kept mouthing, ‘Yes, yes, of course.’ It was only after the tickets were being put on sale that he called me. He said, ‘You realize that you can’t have integration here.’ I said, ‘Yes, I can. I checked. There’s no law that says I have to segregate, just custom, so you just sell the tickets the way they are.’ And he said okay.” The day of the concert, Granz told the theater manager that he wanted to make a few changes for the evening and personally removed signs designating “white” and “Negro” bathrooms from the doors.

“The concerts were an enormous success,” Granz said. “A lot of people had never seen Ella, or they may have seen Ella but not a lot of the musicians. I got to the concert hall early, and somebody came up and wanted to change tickets because they were sitting next to a black. And I said, ‘No, you can have your money back, but we’re not going to change your seat.’ (The customer took the money.) We did everything we could, and of course I had a strong show. People wanted to see my show. If people wanna see your show, you can lay some conditions down.”

Gene Krupa and his group were onstage when Granz noticed three or four men milling around backstage who identified themselves as Houston police detectives and Krupa fans when he queried them. He had already taken the precaution of hiring some off-duty policemen to help maintain security during the show. Granz warily relaxed his normal policy of not permitting outsiders backstage during performances. As the first concert neared its conclusion, the detectives suddenly burst through Fitzgerald’s dressing room door, guns drawn. The singer was enjoying a piece of pie with her cousin and attendant, Georgiana Henry, as musicians including Illinois Jacquet and Dizzy Gillespie shot small-stakes dice to while away the time between appearances.

“Suddenly, these plainclothes guys broke in,” said Granz. “I mean, they could have turned the handle and gone in easier. But they broke in and said, ‘You’re under arrest for gambling’ and that kind of thing. I rushed over and asked what was going on. They said, ‘You’re under arrest too because you’re managing the gambling.'” Granz moved in to block the path of a detective heading toward Fitzgerald’s toilet on the assumption that he might attempt to plant drugs to seriously inflate the charges. “He said ‘What are you doing?’ 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. I knew if he shot me all the police would say that I was resisting arrest. You don’t have a chance when a policeman has got other colleagues there. The witnesses of Dizzy and Jacquet I don’t think would have counted for much, since they were also ‘gambling.’ And I said, “Well, if you’re gonna shoot me, I mean, shoot me.’ The whole thing was just jive. The thing was that in the South they don’t like the idea that we’d mix everything because that sets a precedent. That’s the thing they were bugged about, ’cause 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 police, who had confiscated about $185 from the floor, informed Granz they were going to arrest and book him, Fitzgerald, Henry, Gillespie, and Jacquet immediately. Granz summoned the Music Hall manager and said, “Look, you’d better tell this guy you’ve got three thousand people sitting in the hall and you’ve got three thousand people coming in for the second show. You’re gonna have the biggest uprising you ever had, because I’m going to go out onstage and tell ’em the concert is canceled, and I’m going to tell them why it’s canceled. So, you’d better talk to those guys.” The police agreed to book the five in between shows and get them back in time for the second show. The crush of reporters and photographers at the Houston police station confirmed what Granz had suspected: that their arrests were a setup. The Houston Post carried a photograph of a forlorn Fitzgerald sitting on a bench in a blue taffeta dress and mink stole, while another showed her directing a chilly glance at one of the officers. “One of them had the nerve to ask for an autograph,” Fitzgerald sniped afterward. The paper went on to add, with more than a dollop of condescension, that the singer was “one of the most handsomely dressed women ever to visit the Houston Police Station.” Gillespie later wrote, “They asked everybody their names, and I told them my name was ‘Louis Armstrong.’ I acted pretty smart.”

Granz paid the $50 bail and a trial date was set. “I got pissed off about that, and I hired a lawyer. I’m sure they were confident that nobody would fly all the way back to defend $10,” said Granz, who was particularly upset at the treatment accorded Fitzgerald. Granz retained the services of Abe Herman, attrorney for the prominent Fort Worth newspaper publisher Amon Carter. Herman successfully fought the charges against what one headline writer called Granz’s “Guys and Dolls’ Dice Bit.” When the affair was over, Granz had spent approximately $2,000 to get the charges quashed. The local press that had first splashed the story then turned on the officers. One newspaper recommend that a special patch depicting a chicken on a field of yellow be presented to the detectives participating in the raid, a detail Granz still relished even after the Music Hall was demolished in 1999.

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Excerpted from Norman Granz:  The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice, by Tad Hershorn

granzbook

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“It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” a live Jazz at the Philharmonic performance from 1958

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2 comments on “A Moment in Time: Houston, 1955 — The “Jazz at the Philharmonic” dice game bust”

  1. Thank you for this piece of American history. And God Bless Mr. Granz, not only for bringing these musical virtuosos to thousands of people but for forcing cowardly bigots to come out from under the rocks where they lived. We still have such pathetic people in our country and they still use the police to harass other Americans, believing themselves to be the only ‘real’ Americans when, in fact, they are an embarrassment and insult to us all. That they believe they are ‘defending’ America by such tactics is undercut by the fact that they, in fact, pull every string and use every lie to avoid actual service in the armed forces where they know their bully tactics will get them in serious trouble.

  2. Thank you for this piece of American history. And God Bless Mr. Granz, not only for bringing these musical virtuosos to thousands of people but for forcing cowardly bigots to come out from under the rocks where they lived. We still have such pathetic people in our country and they still use the police to harass other Americans, believing themselves to be the only ‘real’ Americans when, in fact, they are an embarrassment and insult to us all. That they believe they are ‘defending’ America by such tactics is undercut by the fact that they, in fact, pull every string and use every lie to avoid actual service in the armed forces where they know their bully tactics will get them in serious trouble.

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