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Ella Fitzgerald, Illinois Jacquet, Norman Granz and Dizzy Gillespie Arrested in Houston: A Night of Music, Dice, and Defiance


On October 7, 1955, an incident unfolded in Houston, Texas, that echoed the tensions of the era and highlighted the struggle for civil rights in the world of jazz. The night was meant to be a celebration of music and integration, but it ended with the arrest of some of the biggest names in jazz: Ella Fitzgerald, Georgina Henry, Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, and their promoter, Norman Granz.


The Background

Norman Granz, a jazz impresario and civil rights advocate, had long been committed to integrating audiences at his concerts. He believed that music had the power to transcend racial barriers and was determined to create spaces where everyone, regardless of race, could enjoy jazz together. This particular concert in Houston was no different. The contract for the show was explicitly worded to ensure that the audience would be integrated, a bold move in a deeply segregated South.

Houston-born saxophonist Illinois Jacquet was particularly invested in this cause. Reflecting on his motivations, Jacquet said, “I seem to excel on my instrument when I play for an integrated audience.” His desire to see his hometown embrace integration was strong: “I love Houston. This is where I went to school. This is where I learned everything I know. I was fed up with coming to Houston and playing to a segregated audience. I felt if I didn’t do anything about segregation in my hometown, I would regret it.”

The Incident

The evening's first set had concluded without incident, but the night took a dramatic turn during the intermission. According to eyewitness accounts, the Houston vice squad stormed into Ella Fitzgerald’s dressing room, guns drawn, ostensibly to prevent a second set from taking place. The scene they encountered was far from the den of iniquity they might have expected. Fitzgerald and her assistant, Georgina Henry, were quietly drinking coffee. In the corner, Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were playing dice, providing the police with the pretext they needed for the raid.

Ella Fitzgerald, her personal assistant Georgiana Henry, Illinois Jacquet, and Dizzy Gillespie, in a holding cell in 1955, Houston TX.

Norman Granz, upon hearing the commotion, entered the room. He later recounted the evening: “I rushed over and asked what was going on. [The police] said, ‘You’re under arrest too because you’re managing the gambling’”. Granz spotted one detective heading toward Fitzgerald’s bathroom. He moved to block the policeman’s path, figuring the cop might be on his way to plant drugs in the bathroom. The cop asked angrily what he was doing, and Granz responded: “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… And I said, ‘Well, if you’re gonna shoot me, I mean, shoot me’”.


Despite the apparent setup, the group was arrested and taken to jail. Upon their arrival at the jail, the group was met by a throng of photographers who had been tipped off by the police. The scene was chaotic, with flashing cameras capturing the moment the jazz greats were led into the station. This public display was intended to humiliate and intimidate them, sending a clear message to others who might challenge the segregationist status quo.



Inside the jail, the group was processed and placed in a holding cell. Reports from those present describe a tense atmosphere. The musicians, known for their calm and dignified demeanor, maintained their composure despite the hostile environment. Illinois Jacquet later reflected on the experience, noting,

"We knew this was about more than just a dice game. This was about making a statement against segregation and standing up for our rights as artists and as human beings."

The stay in jail was relatively brief, but not without its moments of tension. Norman Granz, always the advocate, continued to assert the group's rights. He reportedly confronted the officers about their treatment and the trumped-up charges, arguing that their arrest was a clear act of racial discrimination.


As the night wore on, the group's solidarity became evident. Ella Fitzgerald and Georgina Henry, though shaken, provided support and reassurance to their fellow detainees. Dizzy Gillespie, known for his irrepressible spirit, attempted to lighten the mood by cracking jokes and engaging in light-hearted banter, even in such grim circumstances. This camaraderie was crucial in helping the group withstand the ordeal.



The legal process was swift but telling. The group was booked and fined $10 each, a nominal fee that underscored the trivial nature of the charges. This small fine was more about making a point than delivering justice. The police's actions were clearly designed to disrupt the concert and assert control, rather than address any legitimate criminal behaviour.


The Return to the Stage

After their release, the group was determined to complete what they had started. They returned to the Music Hall to perform a second set, a defiant act that demonstrated their resilience and commitment to their cause. The audience, aware of the evening's events, greeted them with overwhelming support and applause.


Aftermath and Legacy

The arrest of these jazz icons was a clear act of intimidation aimed at maintaining the status quo of segregation. However, it also highlighted the courage and resilience of those who fought against such oppressive systems. Granz and his musicians were undeterred by their arrest. After their release, they returned to the Music Hall to perform a second set, underscoring their commitment to both their music and their principles.


Looking back on that night, Norman Granz remarked, "It was a reminder of the battles we still had to fight. But it also showed the strength of our community and our music." Ella Fitzgerald, always gracious, later said, "We didn't let them break our spirit. Music is about bringing people together, and that's what we did"

 

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