|Musiquarium||Oct 7 2022|
Fitzgerald and friends enter the no-go zone.
Today in 1955 in Houston, musicians Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, personal assistant Georgiana Henry, and concert promoter Norman Granz were arrested, ostensibly for the crime of illegal gambling. Five undercover cops had barged into the backstage area at the Houston Music Hall during a mid-set break and caught Jacquet and Gillespie playing craps. Fitzgerald was having a snack. Henry was nearby, as assistants tend to be. And Granz was arrested for blocking the cops' access to Fitzgerald's private bathroom because he feared they might plant drugs—a trick he'd seen before. The photo shows Fitzgerald and Henry. The despondent singer told gathered reporters, “I have nothing to say. What is there to say? I was only having a piece of pie and a cup of coffee.”
The gambling charge was, of course, just a pretext. Ella and company were actually arrested for playing to an integrated audience. Segregation had been made illegal the year before, but local authorities weren't budging in their attempts to keep the city divided, and jazz music, because of its popularity and tendency to elevate black culture, was feared by the old guard as the thin edge of the wedge of equal rights. Back then, opponents of equality called non-segregated shows such as Fitzgerald's “forced integration,” because whites had no option to partake without mingling with blacks. The phrase is eerily similar to “forced diversity,” which you hear a lot in 2022, and will continue to hear in upcoming years.
Pretext arrests are really about plausible deniability. Even today on fact-checking websites like Snopes, the arrest is not fully labeled an incident of racist harassment. They were actually gambling, goes the logic. But so were thousands of other Houstonians that night, including, probably, cops at poker sessions in their dens. Everyone breaks the law. Policing is about who is targeted. Five of Houston's finest bursting into a private backstage area when no probable cause existed is itself proof that the arrest was harassment. But it's the cops who write the record, and in covering up their true motivations they also get to skew official history. It's the oldest game in the book.
Fitzgerald and her companions weren't taken to jail until after they completed the few songs left in their show, a concession doubtless bestowed in order to prevent the audience from getting riotous. After being released the musicians made it back to Houston Music Hall and played a second contracted show—again, leniency that was probably a crowd control measure, if not a favor to the concert venue itself. The police had accomplished their objective. They'd sent a message and, because news media were present at the jail, had embarrassed the performers nationally. We suspect that Fitzgerald's heart wasn't really in that second performance. It had to be clear to her that no matter what protections blacks were given with a pen and ink in Washington, D.C., actual power in the south flowed from a corrupt badge and the muzzle of a gun.
If you want to hear Ella at her magical best, have a listen to this.