One For All

Sax giant Illinois Jacquet helped desegregate Houston audiences

When tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet visited his hometown of Houston in 1955, he wanted to make history. Not musically -- the brilliant saxophonist had already covered that -- but socially. Jacquet, horn in hand, wanted to desegregate Houston music audiences. He did, and the Houston Police Department showed its thanks by arresting him.

Born in Broussard, Louisiana, in 1922, Jacquet moved with his family to Houston before he was one year old. He started playing drums, then clarinet, then soprano sax, then finally alto sax. Though famous as an originator of the Texas Tenor sound, Jacquet didn't make the switch to tenor sax until 1942, when Lionel Hampton made it a condition of employment.

As a teenager Jacquet gained a reputation in town as a fierce player with stars in his eyes. "He's a nice person," says local saxophonist Conrad Johnson, who played with Jacquet in the '30s. "On that bandstand, he's a monster because he demands they play everything exactly right."

Illinois Jacquet still takes the sax to otherworldly levels.
Illinois Jacquet still takes the sax to otherworldly levels.

Jacquet quickly learned that being a monster gave him the power to affect change. In the 1930s his high school band was to play the mezzanine of the Rice Hotel, but, because the band was black, they would have to use the back door. Jacquet told his band director they wouldn't play the gig unless they could use the front door. The Rice eventually agreed. "If you don't say anything, nothing happens," Jacquet said in a recent interview.

Despite minor gains like this, Jacquet felt he needed to leave Houston and its segregated ways to become a star. In 1939 he headed for Los Angeles. Houston drummer and Jacquet's lifelong friend George Haynes saw Houston a bit differently. "When Illinois came up, Houston was almost the Berklee School of Music. We had good teachers. When Jacquet left, integration was strictly not tolerated at all. Black bands could play almost anywhere. But as far as a mixed audience, that was out. There was nothing like that at all. Jacquet left because of the lack of venues of the magnitude of his expectation. There were venues here, but I think he expected a lot more."

By 1942 Jacquet was a member of Hampton's orchestra. When the group released Flying Home, featuring Jacquet's famous honking 64-bar solo, the young Houstonian became world-renowned.

While Jacquet enjoyed his success, Los Angeles also had its share of racism. Ironically, racial tensions in Los Angeles would lead to one of jazz's greatest franchises and would give Jacquet the power to make a strong statement in Houston. After the Los Angeles race riots of 1944, jazz impresario Norman Granz was approached to produce a benefit concert at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium. Granz agreed and recruited an all-star lineup that included Jacquet, Nat "King" Cole, Les Paul, J.J. Johnson and others. Inspired by the lineup and the integrated crowd, Jacquet played one of his most memorable solos on "Blues" (which at the time was released as "Philharmonic Blues Part II" because the ten-minute song wouldn't fit on one side of a 78). On this solo Jacquet expanded the range of the tenor saxophone by more than two octaves by biting on his reed and using clarinet fingerings.

"I seem to excel on my instrument when I play for an integrated audience," he says. "When I look out there and it looks like polka dots and moonbeams, I play better. The things that I played that night were impossible, unbelievable. I played all the high notes, anything I wanted, and the audience just went crazy. When they put this record out, it was what I played, and I'm happy to say that that introduced Jazz at the Philharmonic to the public and helped take jazz out of the saloons and put it in concert halls. You play better when people are sitting down, and they're coming to hear a concert like in Carnegie Hall."

Copies of the Jazz at the Philharmonic records sold briskly. A shrewd businessman, Granz turned JATP into an annual concert tour. By the '50s JATP tours lasted seven months and without debate featured the finest lineup in jazz. Every concert program looked like an inductee list into the Jazz Hall of Fame. Granz paid his musicians well, put them up in fine hotels and insisted on first-class treatment. A shrewd businessman himself, Jacquet kept himself at the forefront of JATP tours.

Then came the October 7, 1955, JATP performance at Houston's Music Hall. Contrary to popular belief, segregation did not just magically end in May 1954, with the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Like most of the South, Houston was still a segregated town. Fact is, in 1955 Texas Attorney General Ben Sheppard was in the closing rounds of his doomed bout with the state to keep anti-segregation funds from reaching schools. Jacquet, who was sharing the bill with Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich and others, told Granz he didn't want to play for a segregated audience in his hometown. Granz, who was also personally dedicated to ending segregation and discrimination, agreed. The audience would be desegregated.

"I didn't want to come to my hometown after playing all around the world without doing something," Jacquet recalls. "I love Houston, Texas. This is my hometown. This is where I went to school. This is where I learned everything I know. I was just fed up with coming to Houston with a mixed cast on stage and playing to a segregated audience. I wanted Houston to see a hell of a concert, and they should see it like they were in Carnegie Hall. I felt if I didn't do anything about the segregation in my hometown, I would regret it. This was the time to do it. Segregation had to come to an end."

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