Why you should care
Because one of the greatest moments in American cultural and racial history took place on this day 70 years ago. And it’s a doozy of a tale.
Anybody who wants to understand America should have been in downtown Los Angeles 70 years ago today, July 2, at 2:30 in the afternoon.
In the same auditorium where D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation had premiered three decades before, a 26-year-old impresario named Norman Granz was sizing up the house. Granz was from Boyle Heights, a poor immigrant neighborhood just over the river. He was smart and broad-shouldered and a little obnoxious, with brows bushy enough to hatch an egg.
Some of the musicians were black, some not. In much of the country, this fact alone might have gotten the hall firebombed before the first downbeat.
A packed audience waited to hear the benefit he had organized to raise money for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, a group formed to support 17 young Mexican-Americans railroaded for murder. On the program that day: headliners including Nat King Cole, Les Paul, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Rich and Granz’s girlfriend, the gifted entertainer Marie Bryant. Outside in the street, a few firecrackers were getting an early start on the Fourth of July.
At least two factors would make the concert historic. For starters, some of the musicians were black, some not. In much of the country, this fact alone might have gotten the hall firebombed before the first downbeat. In 1944 Los Angeles, as an interracial couple, Granz and Bryant couldn’t safely venture out in public much beyond the Central Avenue jazz scene he lived for.
To help explain why a Jewish kid with chutzpah to burn — but no dough to speak of — would even try to book such a controversial bill, you’d have to know the neighborhood he grew up in: Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, where integration was a fact before it became a cause. Back then Western Avenue divided most of Los Angeles between east and west, and restrictive residential covenants kept the Westside white. As a result, the Eastside in general — and Boyle Heights in particular — represented some of the most racially diverse census tracts in the country.
Boyle Heights was not just Jewish but also Mexican, African-American, Japanese-American, White Russian, Armenian, take your pick. George Takei, the gay activist and Starfleet helmsman, lived in Boyle Heights until he was 4, when the government finally recognized the grave security risk he posed. Willie “Three Dog” Davis, the Dodgers’ All-Star black center fielder, lettered for the Rough Riders at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Granz’s co-religionists included the trumpeter and philanthropist Herb Alpert, producer Lou Adler and gangster Mickey Cohen — all hailing from Boyle Heights.
The post-Watergate election of 1974 even sent two Democratic sons of Boyle Heights to Congress: Edward Roybal, the first Latino ever so invited, and still-serving Henry Waxman, whose uncle’s editorials in the Eastside News had already helped elect Roybal to the L.A. City Council. Oh, and any guesses where the grandparents of L.A.’s current Jewish-Mexican-Italian mayor, Eric Garcetti, first dated?
So when Norman Granz started to promote concerts around Los Angeles, it never would have occurred to him to put together an all-white or all-black lineup. Once a basketball standout for the Rough Riders, he’d sooner have captained an all-Jewish starting five. Can you play, was the only question. Yes? Good, bring your sneakers. Bring your horn.
Philharmonic Auditorium conferred a legitimacy on the art form that jazz had never known.
The other thing that distinguished this first of many “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts was its setting. In 1944, jazz was something you heard in a nightclub, not a concert hall. You caught a streetcar to the Club Alabam, saw your heroes’ names in lights on a marquee and stayed long past midnight, listening. The mark of the clueless was flagging your waitress during a solo, not clapping between movements.
Philharmonic Auditorium conferred a legitimacy on the art form that jazz had never known. If Nat King Cole and Sergei Rachmaninoff — who spent his last years in that other B.H., Beverly Hills — could play the same hall, then the invisible bouncer at high culture’s door had finally taken five. Seeing black and white musicians on the same program would have been miracle enough; for jazz, even just having a printed program was a different kind of earthquake.
The paychecks cleared, too, and ended in zeroes. When the curtain came down on July 2, 1944, attendees described the ovation as “pandemonium.” (Listen for yourself.)
Norman Granz’s extravaganza led to numberless other breakthroughs. Jazz at the Philharmonic turned into a national phenomenon on tour. Soon it became a best-selling series on Granz’s eventual label, Verve. Some music historians have claimed Illinois Jacquet’s Blues, Part 2 — recorded that day only because Armed Forces Radio decided to carry the concert — as the first-ever rock ’n’ roll record. And twenty years to the day after Granz’s concert, on July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
Some firecrackers have long fuses.