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Music

The night Ella Fitzgerald was jailed for singing to an integrated audience in Texas

In a time where, unfortunately, racism is still a major issue in western society, it is important to educate ourselves on some of the darker moments of our history to serve as a lesson going forward. Music and our societies have changed staggeringly over the past seven decades. In the 1950s, music was yet to diversify into the plethora of mixed genres and experimental avant-garde compositions that we are now well accustomed to. Prior to the ‘50s, American society was racially segregated and this had a significant impact on music. Rules of segregation meant that Black communities tended to stick their music and white people to theirs.

In 1955, Black musician Little Richard released his hit single ‘Tutti Frutti’, which became one of the first Black songs to enter the mainstream charts as a staple of white listening. This made the record a major breakthrough success both for Little Richard and for the Civil Rights Movement. However, society would still have a long way to come before racial inequality in music was dramatically ameliorated. 

In the 1940s and ‘50s, popular music tended to come from the genres of jazz and blues. The genres were enjoyed by Black and white communities alike, but it was extremely rare to see a venue that allowed a mixed audience. Most venues, especially in the deep south, would have so-called Jim Crow laws that promoted segregation under the slogan “Separate But Equal”.  Concerts would often have to be put on with two separate showings to allow for Black and white people to see live performances. It would be no surprise to see armed police at concerts ensuring that ethnic mixing wasn’t occurring at music events at the time.

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Despite the Jim Crow slogan, the inequality at the time often saw occasions of unprovoked arrests of Black people who were part of mixed audiences and sometimes even the performers themselves were targeted. On October 7th 1955, Ella Fitzgerald was sat backstage at The Music Hall in Houston, Texas where the Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP) tour was stopped for a one-night sold-out event. The audience was an ethnically mixed assemblage that breached Jim Crow rules; while Gene Krupa’s band performed on stage, a group of armed Texas state police invaded the backstage area and arrested Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Illinois Jacquet who were playing a game of craps a few yards from Fitzgerald who was innocently eating some pie. Meanwhile, the tour manager Norman Granz had been standing on the side of the stage and had heard the commotion behind him, he immediately went backstage to investigate.

Granz 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’”.

Granz had learned to expect such interferences during his JATP concerts due to his outspoken stance on civil rights and zero tolerance for racial discrimination. Despite racial segregation rules having been abolished in 1954, Houston remained a segregated city and the public tended to pay little heed to the new laws. At his concerts, Granz would welcome the new changes in US law taking down “Whites Only” and “Negro” signs to allow a mixed audience for his events, much to the dissatisfaction of the state police.

That night, on October 7th, 1955, Ella Fitzgerald was arrested, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet, and taken to a cell at the police station on suspicion of illegal gambling; however, as it’s quite plain to see, the true motivation behind the arrests was the police department’s unwillingness to accept the new laws that allowed Black and white people to mix at events. At the station, the group were registered and fined on charges of gambling. Strangely, a whole host of reporters and photographers were there almost immediately to greet the three, further suggesting that the operation had been a planned hoax. Fortunately, the performers managed to make it back to the concert to perform the second set of the show without the audience ever knowing what atrocities had happened backstage. 

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