Saturday, January 22, 2011

With A Voice Like Ella's Ringing Out

Legendary performer Ella Fitzgerald and her personal assistant, Georgiana Henry, await their booking on gambling charges in a Houston police station [above], October 7, 1955.

I had intended this post for Monday's Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Unfortunately, I spent the week in deep negotiations with my publisher over the next book. Apparently, the tentative title - The Romanov's: No, I Don't Give A Shit, Either - was going to be a deal-breaker. So, with that out of the way, January 22nd will have to do.

The story is one that seems anachronistic when you consider our President or the fact that we have a national holiday celebrating the life and legacy of King. Back in October 1955, though, King was unknown and President Obama was six years away from even being born. In Houston, Texas, in 1955, you can bet that the idea of an African American [of course, that term would not have been the one used] President of the United States would have so shocked the consciousness of the inhabitants that you would have had a better chance of convincing them that aliens from Mars had landed on Interstate 45.

Try, then, to read this story in the context of the times and allow yourself to be amazed at how life in America has changed so much in 55 years that we might as well be talking about 550 years.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the photo that leads off this post. It is the look of shame, devastation, humiliation and anger. It is a picture of two women - one of whom may have been the greatest female vocalist of the 20th [or any other, for that matter] century. A woman who, later in life, would be rightly celebrated for all of her greatness.

None of that, of course, is apparent in the above photo. It was taken by news photographers who were tipped off by the Houston Police Department that there was going to be a bust at the Houston Music Hall. The night was October 7, 1955. The event at the Music Hall was part of jazz impresario Norman Granz' 'Jazz at the Philharmonic' tour, which included other jazz legends like Dizzie Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, Gene Krupa and Lester Young. Saxophonist Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet, a tenor saxophonist from Houston - also on the bill - was the prime mover in bringing the show to Houston and making sure the concert (which featured both black and white musicians) would be integrated.

Two shows were scheduled that night. The raid that landed Fitzgerald and Henry in front of photographers took place before the end of the first concert. Fitzgerald, along with Illinois Jacquet, Granz and Fitzgerald's personal assistant Georgiana Henry were arrested. The charge? Shooting dice in Fitzgerald's dressing room at the Music Hall.

As the Houston Chronicle quaintly recounted in its October 8, 1955 edition:

Vice squad officers said three of the five -- Dizzie Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet and Georgiana Henry -- were actually crooning to the bones when police walked into Ella Fitzgerald's dressing room back-stage at the Music Hall.

Miss Fitzgerald and show producer Norman Granz were "just present" in the back-stage dressing room while the jazz show was going on in the Music Hall, the officers said.

However, all were taken to the police station and charged. They posted $10 bonds.

If there was any doubt that the raid was planned as a warning against future attempts at integrated shows, the group didn't stay at the police station for long. In fact, they made it back in time for the second show, leaving audiences unaware of what had taken place. Making a statement against integration was one thing. Causing the owner of the Music Hall to lose the bookings from the second show was something else.

That the concert happened at all was a small miracle. Granz wanted to run the show - which traveled throughout the North - in at least one Southern city. Illinois Jacquet insisted that his hometown be that city. He felt that this was a rare - perhaps once-in-a-lifetime - opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities of integration in his hometown.

According to an article in Houston History Magazine, the story was detailed in Dizzy Gillespie’s now out-of-print autobiography, To Be, or not … to Bop. According to the jazz legend, Granz told him that when he rented the Music Hall, he added a non-segregation clause to the contract. Upon arriving at the venue, Granz removed the signs denoting the 'white' versus 'black' restrooms, and refused to pre-sell tickets in case patrons attempted to section off parts of the venue for whites only.

In the build-up to the show, it was not as though Granz and Illinois Jacquet were interested in stealthily coming in and out of town with nary an attempt at publicity. Indeed, Illinois Jacquet took on the role of spokesman, visiting Texas Southern University, local high schools and Houston radio stations to promote the event. Both Granz and Illinois Jacquet had every intention for the show to become the first major concert in Houston with a desegregated audience.

But how did these two men figure to generate an audience - at least of whites - to desegregate the concert? That was where Ella came in. Granz and Illinois Jacquet knew that - in addition to Gillespie and the others - a line-up featuring Ella Fitzgerald would bring out the white audience. "A lot of people never saw Ella, or they may have seen Ella but not a lot of the musicians," Granz recalled later. "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.’" Unfortunately [for him], the customer took his money back.

Fearing problems because of the forced integration, Granz hired eight Houston Police Department officers as guards. Although no crowd disturbances or violence occurred that evening, for Ella Fitzgerald, her personal assistant Henry, Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet, trouble was planned by Houston’s vice squad, headed by an asshole named Sergeant W.A. Scotton. It was Scotton who planned and operated the sting mission to arrest the performers.

After the first concert, five plains-clothes officers and Scotton obtained backstage access and burst into Fitzgerald’s dressing room with guns drawn and pointed at the inhabitants. In one corner of the room, Jacquet and Gillespie played craps, while Fitzgerald and Henry drank coffee and had a piece of pie in between sets.

Granz recalled the incident in Gillespie’s book stating that he heard the commotion, and when he came in, he saw Scotton headed to the bathroom, and immediately suspected the cop's intention was to plant drugs. With amazing boldness - not to mention bravery - Granz said to Scotton, "I’m watching you." With that, the cop turned around, walked toward Granz and jabbed his drawn revolver at the musician's stomach. With almost a trace of a smile, the Scotton said, "I oughta kill you, now." For a frightening second Fitzgerald, Henry and the others thought the officer was going to do it. Perhaps it was only an attempt to scare Granz and the others. Or, perhaps, Scotton caught himself before crossing a line he had not set out to venture beyond. Whatever the reason, Scotton withdrew the gun from Granz' stomach and joined the other members of the vice squad om making their arrests of Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, Fitzgerald, Henry, and Granz for gambling.

While cuffed and being led out, Granz called out to the manager of the Music Hall that the second set would have to be cancelled. With the thought of the lost revenue - not to mention the fact that a cancelled show would likely cause the crowd to react unfavorably in an already tense situation, the manager begged Scotton to stop. Instead, the vice squad commander said - out of earshot of the arrested performers - that he would bring the group to the police station, book them, and make them pay a fine. But he would return them before the second show.

Of course, that had been the plan all along. As had been the notification to the Houston press of the pending arrests. For, when the group arrived at the station, they were greeted by reporters and photographers.

To further their humiliation, the performers were forced to sit on benches awaiting processing while photographers shuttered away with their cameras. The look on Fitzgerald's face above says it all. The degradation, humiliation and sheer powerlessness. It was a reinforcement to her - and others - that no matter how famous, successful or wealthy someone like Ella became, she was still African American. While her treatment was certainly more humane than would have been the case had she not been a celebrity, nonetheless it was a reminder that her America had a place for her, and expected her to stay there.

But she wouldn't stay there. That, in fact, is what we celebrate when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the most celebrated of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, King was by no means a singular force. As powerful as his oratory and leadership skills were, without the tens of thousands of others - African American and white - forcibly integrating the country, it would never have happened. It is the legacy of those tens of thousands that we also celebrate.

And it is a celebration for us all.

copyright 2011 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

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