Colored Musicians Club 100th Anniversary Event

On December 4 at 4 p.m. the Colored Musicians Club will present a theatre and music event as part of its celebrations for their 100th year anniversary. Some of Buffalo’s finest actors will be reading scenes from Dissonance, a play based on the forced merger of Buffalo’s segregated musicians’ union, on the very site where these events happened.  Set amidst the evolving Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and the changing music industry, the play explores issues of personal identity, group loyalty and raw ambition. Live music will be performed between the scenes by Club members. This event is free and open to the public. The Colored Musicians Club is located on Broadway at Michigan. Music Director, George Scott ; Playwright,  Joy Scime; Directors, Joy Scime and Verneice Turner; Actors Greg Natale, Willie Judson, Dudney Joseph, Kinzy Brown, Ernie Insana, Phil Farugia and others.

The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, New York, Inc. Celebrates

99 Years of History 

by Dawoud Sabu Adeyola, Ed. M.

On February 3, 1917, the Colored Musicians Association of Buffalo, Musicians Local 533, was officially established in Buffalo, New York under the auspices of the American Federation of Musicians. This was after unsuccessful attempts by African-American musicians of that city to join Musicians Local 43 which had an official policy of segregation and discrimination. Buffalo thus became the eighth American city to have a “Colored”  Musicians Union in the AFM.1 

 In 1953, W. P. Steeper published a thesis entitled, Civil Rights in the American Federation of Musicians in which he noted that at the time, there were 50 “Colored” Musicians Locals within the Federation. His work was intended to be an exhaustive critique of the AFM in the perspective of the Federations own, “Bill of Rights: for its members. The first right stated was: 

“Membership should not be denied by discrimination based upon race, creed, color, sex, national origin or political affiliation.”

In Chapter 14 of his thesis, Mr. Steeper wrote:

“There are some locals that will not accept Colored members.When the issue first arose, an attempt was made to resolve the problem by establishing subsidiary colored Locals. The subsidiary Local was subordinate to and under the control of the White Local.”

In 1941 when James Petrillo succeeded Joseph N. Weber as the AFM President, he did away with subsidiary locals and Colored unions became fully autonomous locals. For Buffalo, the significance of this was that Local #533 was no longer underneath the jurisdiction or control of Local #43. They were both constituted, chartered membership Locals in the AFM. The two were finally merged into one Union in the late 1960’s. Mr. Steepers thesis was one of the first to press the issue of racism, racial discrimination and other disparities within an organization that was by its own standards, was supposed to protect the rights of its members. In 1964, the American Federation of Musicians President, Herbert Kenin, told the separate locals that the Federation had to desegregate or be in violation of the Civil Rights Act, scheduled to take effect on July 1, 1965. In 1969 after years of negotiations the two unions in Buffalo, 43 and 533, were merged into one, AFM Local 92 which exists until today. 

On February 9, 1909, eightyears prior to the formation of Local #533 on February 3, 1917, another African-American organization was created in nearby Niagara Fallsby a number of gentlemen led by Moorfield Storey, Mary White Ovington, Ida B. Wells, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and others. Calling itself The Niagara Movement, with the stated mission of this group was, “to ensure the political, social and economic equality of rights for all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”.3 The name was eventually changed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People commonly referred to as the NACCP and is the oldest and most widely recognized civil rights organization. The fact that this occurred in the immediate vicinity of Buffalo and Western New York is significant because it suggests that this particular period, less than fifty years since the Emancipation was signed, was rife with racial hatred and African-American lives were lived in peril. It is important to note that the framers of the Niagara Movement included prominent white Americans as well as African-Americans and that in fact, its initial membership was limited to professionals as business person and influential persons such as teachers, physicians, ministers, business people etc.

A typical group of the less prestigious segment of society comprised Buffalo’s African-American musicians who were performing at dances, church socials, and parties. Usually common laborers, as well as legitimate dance halls were under the jurisdiction of the AFM when it came to live music performances, and they were often segregated and off limits to non-white musicians.

Buffalo was also the scene of anti-Negro riots precipitated by the claims of Irish laborers that Negro laborers were depriving them of employment.5 It is significant that Local #533 kept careful records of dues, performance rosters, traveling musicians, club owners and dispute concerning entrepreneurs as well as musicians. Through these records, which have been preserved for benefit of future researchers, it will be possible to reconstruct a more complete picture of the evolution of the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo (CMC) and its parent organization Local #533. 

One of the remarkably well documentation of Local 533 was its record of “Transfer Members” which is what musicians who traveled to Buffalo to work shows and make concert appearances were called. In order to work in a jurisdiction of a musicians Local other than the one that a musician belonged to, it was necessary to be register, pay work dues and receive a work permit from the particular Local in whose jurisdiction they worked in. Accordingly, as shown on the placard above which is displayed on the building of the CMC , we have records of dues paid and signatures of dozens of outstanding musical icons such as Louis and Lil Armstrong, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, William “Count” Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday (who resided for a time in Buffalo), Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmie Lunceford, Slam Stewart& Slim Galliard (who were also Buffalo residents).  

In 1918, approximately one year after its establishment, a social club was established for the benefit of the members of Local 533 and the community. After having several locations , the Colored Musicians Club received its own charter and certificate of incorporation as The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, New York and purchased property at 145 Broadway St. where it remains today.  At the time thto charter member and retired President of Local 533, Dr. Raymond E. Jackson, “the musicians used to hang out after they finished their jobs at night. You could get a trotter-a plate of pork, a pig foot, a plate of beans and a bottle of b Sundays, musicians would utilize the club for band rehearsals, taking advantage of the free space and the piano it provided.” (Davis) as formed, a close knit group of people independent member and retired President of Local 533, Dr. Raymond E. Jackson, “the musicians used to hang out after they finished their jobs at night. You could get a trotter-a plate of pork, a pig foot, a plate of beans and a bottle of beer - for 25 cents. On Sundays, musicians would utilize the    The actual building had been constructed between 1880 and 1900 and it initially housed the shop of boot and shoemaker Charles Zifle, then Michael McNamara’s cigar and tobacco stand, a billiards parlor, several union locals and Niagara China and Equipment Company. Located in what is now know as the Historic Michigan Avenue Corridor most of the historic buildings of the area are no longer in existence. 

At the time of its establishment, the Club shared the neighborhood with other historic institutions such as the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, The Michigan YMCA and music venues such as The Little Harlem Hotel and Supper Club, Mandys, the Moonglowand the Lucky Clover Jazz club. 

The first officers of the Local 533 were Silas Laws in whose home some of the initial meetings were held and who became its first President, Charles Swayne, Monte Tate, John Neal, Julius Franklin, Henry Wheeler, Clara Oliver, Charles Wright and Clara Oliver. According to researcher Richard McCrae, “Mention was made that in the year 1916, overtures were made to the Musicians Local 43 of Buffalo, to take in Negro musicians, but they refused. An appeal was then made to the International Union and the then President Joseph N. Weber ordered Major Powell to represent the Federation and to organize the Negro musicians.

This was accomplished on February 2, 1917.”3 This picture shows Dizzy Gillespie seated at the piano, Elvin Sheppard standing next to him, Wilbur Trammel playing Tenor Saxophone and Miles Davis peering from the back doorway among other musicians at the CMC at 145 Broadway in the late 1940’s.This was a typical “session” at the Club in the early days described by long time member and former Local 533 officer, the late Albert “Eggie” Riding:“I came toBuffalo (in 1933) from St. Louis, to play at a place called McVans. We had a six month contract to play there and I’m still here! At first, I didn’t participate much at the Club other than after work, when we would come by because this is where the musicians all congregated...at the musicians club. It was first located around the corner at Clinton Street. However, they moved over here and I was not involved but I was here when the Club purchased this building. At the time, there were two Musicians unions, Local 533 which was called the Colored Local and Local 43 which was the white Local. Some of the members of the

Musicians local decided that they wanted to have a a social part and this was how the CMC got started... in order to handle some of the local activities and to have a place for the musicians to hang out when they finished playing. There was quite a bit of musical activity at that time in the 1930’s. Musicians were working all over Buffalo and they would congregate on the corner here at Broadway and Michigan (streets). You could see almost every musician who was playing around 3:00 to 3:30 A.M. Every morning. So, when the Club was formed, they were able to join the Club and it was made up of all people who were interested in the arts and the music. It didn’t have to be all musicians but it was predominantly musicians who conducted all the activities.”

Today, the CMC continues to uphold its historic legacy by being open in the evenings of certain week days for rehearsals in addition to regular shows and open mike sessions on Sunday evenings form 6 to 9pm. Also, the CMC has established a Museum in its premises that is open to the public and hosts the CMC JazzFest on the last weekend of each July. The Board of Directors has established a committee that is preparing activities to commemorate 100 years of continuous achievement in the form of several activities that will celebrate the Centennial of the Local 533’s birth and subsequent establishment of the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo culminating with a GrandGala to be held inApril of 2017 in downtown Buffalo. Presently, it is open to the public. For more information please visit the CMC Website at www.coloredmusiciansclub.org or call 716-855-9383