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."
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."
According to Granz's own words lifted from Dizzy Gillespie's out-of-print autobiography, to BE, or not... to BOP, the producer rented the Music Hall and put a non-segregration clause in his contract, thereby ensuring an integrated audience. He removed "white toilets" and "Negro toilets" signs. Tickets were sold on a first-come/first-serve walk-up basis, and none were pre-sold, so patrons could not block off a section for whites or blacks only. For his part, Jacquet served as a publicity machine by speaking at Texas Southern University, local high schools and on the radio, explaining why there would be no pre-sale tickets.
To mitigate any potential problems stemming from his progressive seating policies, Granz hired eight members of HPD, including Lieutenant Sam Clauder (who happened to be the mayor's chauffeur) for the then-exorbitant amount of $25 per man. News reports didn't mention any incidents in the crowd; it would seem the audience came to hear music, not to take part in racial demagoguery. Some white patrons asked to be seated elsewhere when they discovered they were sitting next to blacks, but Granz simply refunded their money and told them to leave.
But there was trouble waiting for Granz and company. Five plainclothes members of Houston's vice squad, headed by Sergeant W.A. Scotton, constructed and followed through with what has been widely interpreted as a racially motivated sting operation. The plainclothesmen obtained backstage access by showing Granz their badges, telling him they were jazz fans and saying they merely wanted to watch the concert. Granz told them they could stand in a specific area backstage, but they quickly found their way to Ella Fitzgerald's dressing room. As a performance was taking place on stage, the vice squad broke into Fitzgerald's room with guns in their hands -- but no search warrant.
What the vice squad found when it broke into the room was Jacquet and Gillespie killing time between sets by shooting craps. Fitzgerald and her personal assistant Georgiana Henry, who were not playing, were eating pie and drinking coffee. The vice squad arrested the foursome for gambling. "I was shooting the dice at the time, had the money [$185] in my fist, and I was winning money," Jacquet says with a laugh. "I was very disappointed that they did that. We know how to shoot dice in Texas."
Granz recounts what happens next in Gillespie's book: Hearing the commotion, the producer quickly made his way to the dressing room, saw what was happening and, before he could do anything, noticed one member of the vice squad headed toward the bathroom. All too aware this probably meant the officer was about to plant drugs, Granz followed the officer into the bathroom. The officer asked Granz what he was doing. The producer replied, "I'm watching you." The officer pointed his gun in Granz's stomach and said, "I oughta kill you," in full view of the performers and other police officers.
"We didn't fool with drugs," Jacquet says. "We didn't come to Houston to be busted."
The vice squad arrested Jacquet, Gillespie, Fitzgerald, Henry and Granz for gambling as the off-duty police officers looked on in amazement. When Granz told the Music Hall's manager the second show would be canceled, which would have likely caused a riot, a conversation between the manager and the vice squad ensued. After much discussion, the vice squad agreed to take the quintet to the police station, book them, charge them a fine then take them back to the Music Hall in time for the second show. Incredibly, officers asked for autographs at the station, apparently oblivious to the performers' pain and humiliation.
In a scene that could have come right out of Hollywood, reporters and photographers greeted the performers at the station, lending more credence to the theory that it was all a setup. The headlines may have been prewritten. Thanks to this attention, though, HPD soon found itself having to explain to reporters why it was arresting musicians for a private craps game in a private dressing room. The October 8, 1955, edition of The Houston Post noted that "Sgt. Scotton did not explain from whom he got the information that led him to raid Miss Fitzgerald's dressing room."
Though HPD didn't get the press it was looking for, the event did make national headlines. "When we got to New York," Jacquet says, laughing, "my wife had the paper in her hand. Our wives were about to blow their tops."
Nationally, the Houston vice squad's transparent attack made the force look more like the Keystone Cops than Scotland Yard. The New York Daily News said, "Houston Dice Cops Give Ella & Boys a Bad Shake," while Variety's headline addressed the cause of the incident head-on: "Granz and Co. Play 'Guys and Dolls' Dice Bit for Houston Cops; Aud Unsegregated." Both the Houston Chronicle and the Post failed to note the integration issue.
The group was fingerprinted but never put behind bars. Granz paid a bond of $10 each, which was essentially a fine, as it was assumed the bond would be forfeited when the group left town the next day. After the group was booked and the bonds paid, the quintet was returned to the Music Hall in time for the second performance, which took place without a scene. The audience never knew what had happened.
The next day Jack Heard, HPD chief, would tell the Post the officers were a bit "overzealous" in the raid and that "they could have used the manpower to more advantage elsewhere." However, he also announced he had no formal plans to investigate the incident. On October 24, 1955, Granz had the charges against himself, Fitzgerald and Henry dismissed, as they were merely onlookers (though watching a dice game under Texas law was a fineable offense). Not fully satisfied, Granz spent more than $2,000 in legal fees to get Jacquet and Gillespie cleared.
It would be a few years before Jacquet would return to Houston, but he says that delay was due to his schedule, not any resentment toward his hometown.
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Whatever the debacle, the JATP concert did open the door to integrated Houston audiences. The events of that night have taken on legendary proportions among older local jazz musicians. The consensus is that the show was the first major concert in Houston with a nonsegregated audience. After that performance Houston became more relaxed toward integrated audiences, and when JATP returned in 1956 (sans Jacquet), it played to a mixed audience without police interference or racial strife.
"Houston is a hell of a city," Jacquet says. "It's always been a hell of a city, but it had its habits, and segregation was one of those bad habits. I'm proud of what I did because I had no choice. If you're not going to do anything about it, then you don't care about where you came from. I wanted to do if for the younger people that were coming up. Whatever I could do to improve our standards of life, I thought that was the appropriate thing to do, and it worked."
Indeed it did.
Da Camera of Houston presents the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, which performs Friday, November 19, at 8 p.m. at Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center. For ticket information, call Da Camera of Houston at 1(800)23-DACAM.