He was used to playing in front of big crowds by then, but when Jean-Baptiste “Illinois” Jacquet stepped into the spotlight onstage at downtown’s Houston Music Hall on October 7, 1955, it was for more than just a performance. Jacquet—alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and a crew of jazz musicians both black and white—was about to play to an integrated audience in his hometown. It would be the first major desegregated concert in the Bayou City.
Jacquet had grown up in Houston, learning to play various musical instruments from his own family before cutting his chops on the saxophone at Phillis Wheatley High School in the Fifth Ward in the 1930s. Segregation was firmly in place here during his childhood, but even as a teenager Jacquet had pushed back against those realities, refusing to play Rice Hotel with his high school band unless the manager let them enter through the front door. “If you don’t say anything, nothing happens,” he said years later.
By the time he came back to town more than a decade later, on the famed Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, Jacquet was world-renowned for his revolutionary solo work on the tenor sax. He’d played with Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie. And he refused to perform in Houston again unless he was playing to a mixed audience.
“This is where I learned everything I know,” Jacquet later recalled. “I was just fed up with coming to Houston with a mixed cast onstage 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.”
While the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled segregated schools unconstitutional the year prior, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, little had changed across the South. “Despite the court’s decision, there was still firm support for Jim Crow,” Gerald Horne, a UH history professor, explained to Houstonia. “That was considered the real law. It was taken very seriously here in Houston, and it was very dangerous to break these laws. You could be beaten by other people, or by the authorities themselves.”
But famed impresario Norman Granz, the producer behind the tour, supported Jacquet, securing a contract with Music Hall that required theater managers to allow for a desegregated cast and audience or forfeit the bulk of the fee. Granz knew things could get rough—only a year before, the entire troupe had been forced to sneak out of a venue in Charleston, South Carolina, to avoid a mob gathered at the stage door—but he decided it was worth the risk.
“I knew the story of Houston,” Granz would explain in Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop. “Usually a city that’s very rich is a difficult city to break and change tradition. The people who run things, the rich whites, could come as strong as they wanted, and the police department would of course agree with that.” But Granz had the ultimate ace up his sleeve. The city had a real appetite for jazz, and he was offering Houstonians the chance to hear some of the greatest players of the form.
Granz made sure the theater didn’t sell tickets until performance day, so that no one could buy up blocks and segregate the seating personally. In the hours before the first show, he went into the theater and took down all the “White” and “Negro” signs. When the doors opened, eight off-duty police officers stood by, but the roughly 2,200 people who filed in were more concerned about the entertainment than about who they were sitting next to. The few who complained got refunds but not new seats. “If people want to see your show,” Granz later said, “you can lay some conditions down.”
Things didn’t go quite so smoothly backstage. Shortly before Gene Krupa finished the first set, plainclothes vice squad detectives burst into Fitzgerald’s dressing room, where the singer was having a piece of pie with her cousin while Gillespie and Jacquet were shooting dice. Granz hurried in. The police arrested all five for gambling.
When they arrived at the station, reporters and photographers were already there. Waiting to be booked in her blue taffeta dress and mink stole, Fitzgerald dabbed away tears, but Jacquet kept his sense of humor, telling reporters his name was Louis Armstrong and looking casually dapper in the photos snapped for the morning papers.
Granz pointed out that more than 2,000 people were waiting to hear the musicians play before paying $50 to bail them out, and everyone got back to Houston Music Hall before the start of the next performance, with the audience none the wiser. The detectives likely intended to embarrass Jacquet and the others—Granz watched the officers intently the entire time they were in the dressing room, sure someone would try to plant drugs if given the chance—but the national headlines that followed mocked the police instead.
That may have done even more good than the desegregated concert itself, Horne says. “These were celebrated artists, and the fact that they were subjected to such treatment put a spotlight on Houston in a way that many disliked. That kind of external pressure could be very powerful.”
Granz would spend more than $2,000 to have all the charges dropped. From then on, Jazz at the Philharmonic played to integrated audiences in Houston with no trouble.
Jacquet, who died in 2004, went back to focusing on music. To him, it was never a big deal. “Houston is a hell of a city,” he said. “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 it for the younger people that were coming up.”
During his lifetime, his daughter Pamela Jacquet Davis told Houstonia, the tenor saxman never talked much about that night, except to joke about how the police had come in just as he’d beat Gillespie at dice and was collecting the money. It was only a few years ago that she stumbled across the photograph of her dad being arrested alongside Fitzgerald. “I looked at it wondering what on earth Aunt Ella was doing behind bars,” she said. “It was something he did because he loved Houston, because the city helped make him into the musician he was in his formative years. He got to give this back.”