Colored Musicians Club 1918 - present
by Rachel Bernstein
The Buffalo Colored Musicians Club at 145 Broadway is as endearing a place as it is historically significant. Upon entering the club you are met by an overwhelming presence which resonates from the club's rich history. The club is like a home away from home for many Buffalo residents who are long time members. For them, the club holds memories of times past when it was nothing for jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald to be passing through. Sometimes members would even be picked up by a band on tour, travel down South on the "chitlen' circuit", and come home with crazy stories of life on the road. In addition to inspirational run-ins with the famous and elite, the club fostered an environment where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds could come together over a mutual love of the American phenomenon called jazz. Besides the bonds of friendship made between members of the club, involvement in the jazz movement has provided strength and hope to Buffalo's African American community since its formation. The Colored Musicians Club embodies these positive forces and provides a place which allows dreams to take shape into reality.
Originally, there was only one Buffalo musicians union, Local 43. This all white Local which was part of the American Federation of Musicians refused to include African American musicians. As a result, a separate union, Buffalo Local 533 was formed on February 3, 1917. Buffalo then became the eighth city in the United States, since the 1896 founding of the American Federation of Musicians, with racially segregated musician's local unions. A year after Local 533 was formed, a close knit group of people independent from the Association but comprised of it's members, formed a social club where, according to 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 beer - for 25 cents. On Sundays, musicians would utilize the club for band rehearsals, taking advantage of the free space and the piano it provided." (Davis)
Before the Colored Musicians Club found its permanent home at 145 Broadway in 1934, it was housed in other locations. These residences included the union headquarters on Michigan Avenue, then 96 Clinton at the corner of Oak Street, and the Masonic Temple at 168 Clinton Street. When the Colored Musicians Club moved into the property at 145 Broadway it was merely a vacant storefront. 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. (Davis)
The Colored Musicians Club received its charter and became incorporated on May 14, 1935. At this point, the club utilized the space upstairs for practice, rehearsals, and performances while, downstairs, the union would hold its meetings. This club, which was a separate entity from Local 533, and gave the members a sense of community outside of their professional and family environments. Its purpose was stated as follows in its certificate and consequently in its Constitution:
"[To] foster the principles of unity and cooperation among the colored musicians of Erie County, N.Y.; to develop and promote the civic, social, recreational and physical well-being of its members; to improve and enhance the professional and economic status of its members; to stimulate its members to greater musical expression; to encourage and develop a fuller appreciation of music on the part of its members and the public; and generally to unite its members in the bonds of friendship, good fellowship and mutual understanding." (McRae)
Later, during the 1950's, more and more jazz bands were becoming racially integrated. This racial integration showed a positive step in terms of race relations in the country but the initial results of the desegregation were not always positive for African American Locals because they had less power in terms of size and influence than their white counterparts. 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. As reported in the International Musician, "Locals 43 and 533, Buffalo, New York, merged effective January 1, 1969. The merged Local would be known as 'Buffalo Musicians' Association, Local 92, A. F. of M." (Davis) Regrettably, this new merged Local showed preference for the white musicians and, in many cases, put African American musicians out of work.
Fortunately, the Colored Musicians Club, having purchased the property at 145 Broadway and being a separate body from the Local, was able to remain intact. In many other cities, African American Locals lost their real estate after mergers and were, then, over-powered by the larger, more powerful white Locals. This one distinction (the separate-ness of the Club from the Local) preserved the Colored Musicians Club and continued to allow African American musicians to have a place that they could call their own in Buffalo. In 1979, the Club was granted historic landmark status. In 1999, the Club was designated a historical preservation site. Today, the Colored Musicians Club is the only remaining African American club in the entire United States and, as such, it actively encourages historical research and preservation of the history of jazz in Buffalo. (Scott)
The existence of the club provided Buffalo with an attractive, static location where many of the fore mentioned jazz greats could stop in and "show their chops." This enabled interaction of Buffalo residents with prominent and prestigious African American musicians which, in turn, provided hope for many that the goals of economic betterment and social acceptance weren't out of reach. One member, Boyd Lee Dunlop, who joined the club in 1945, fondly recounts one of his most memorable nights at the club:
"It was 1953. I got to the club at 4:30 and played a set with Elvin Sheppherd, Otis Sutton, Frankie Dunlop, and Skinny Burgan. After our jam I stayed around and Billie Holiday showed up and wanted to sing. I didn't know who it was at first but as soon as she started to sing I was like,'Oh my, I'm playing for Ms. Holiday.' As soon as we finished, I called my mother from a payphone inside. I told her who I was playing for, but she didn't believe me right away so I put Billie Holiday on the phone. She was so excited. Afterwards, Billie invited me to go out with her but I declined. I was never into drinking or drug use. I was 16 then and going to school. I met her in New York City about thirty years later while playing organ at the Teresa Hotel. She asked me if I wanted to hang out now and I declined again. I still wasn't into drinking and that but I was touched that she remembered me.
Another member, and hall-of-famer, Art Anderson whose Big Band rehearses on Wednesdays, recalled the past excitement surrounding the club:
"When I first came down here about 1944, sessions started about two-thirty in the afternoon and went till ten or eleven at night. Our president, Perry Grey, used to entice the artists coming into town to come up here and perform on Sundays before the jam sessions. I saw Nat King Cole; Mary Lou Williams. We used to have a line that went down the stairs and go all the way around the block to get in here." (Davis)
Many members of the club speak fondly not only of interactions with world acclaimed musicians but also of contact with some of Buffalo's own treasures. One such treasure was pianist Al Tinney who touched the lives of many at the club. Al once said:
"There was never a place like the Musician's club when I was in New York. To play and socialize. What you called a jam session was all great players. They came out to cut each other. 'I can do this better than you.' The Club is like a workshop. The more you play with better people, the better you get. I figure one day they'll grow up and become better, and I've seen them in the minor leagues. And one day they'll be in the major leagues. I go as a supporter of this thing, because I'm in it. We're all in it together. There's a nice camaraderie up here." (Davis)
Long time member, and hall-of-famer, Charles Reedy remembers one of his highest moments as an invitation by Al Tinney to play a tribute to Charlie Parker at the University at Buffalo. This invitation from Al came accompanied with the complement that Charles Reedy had a sound close to that of Parker himself which is why he was being selected for the gig. Such fellowship and kind supportive words seem like a signature created by the Buffalo Club.
Jazz was always about more than just syncopated noise or classy timeless entertainment. It was a movement about hope and the ability of men to work together to create something beautiful. It was about listening to what each other had to say in a musical sense and the human capacity to hear one another in complex ways. As the current club President, George Scott, explained, "Music has typically been in the Black culture a way of communication and a vehicle for change jazz is a free expression." And as Boyd Lee Dunlop simply stated, "Jazz is about listening." At 145 Broadway, it didn't matter what color you were, as long as you had the chops. When asked about the clubs affect on race relations in Buffalo, the following was said:
"A bunch of us, we would come from Church, hang out from 4:30 10:30, it was packed. People would come down from Canada and up from Pennsylvania. This club brought races together, everyone played, and we didn't see ethnicityIt was a joining thing, everyone loved everybody." Boyd Lee Dunlop
"One thing about music, people don't look at color. Jazz was an activist movement. Whites and Blacks in the same room having fun." George Scott
"The Club helps the community by bringing people together who wouldn't normally be together. Something I've noticed about musicians, very little elements of racism. The Moonglo was the elite club which brought big bands into Buffalo but the Club was the melting pota venue for a lot of guys to come up and learn." Charles Reedy
The affirmation that the Club provided a platform for progressive improvements in race relations came from almost every mouth in the house. The concepts of unity and cooperation gracefully exist in the very fabric of jazz such that peaceful constructive relations are implied in its very nature.
The Buffalo Colored Musicians Club has added
valuable cultural depth to the City of Buffalo and has greatly
enriched the lives of the musicians and the members who have participated
throughout its existence. This includes many members of Buffalo's
African American community. "This place is somewhere we started
and it just built up, it is somewhere to call your own, it represents
black people," Dunlop remarked. "Historically, Buffalo
was a convenient pipeline between New York City and the West,
South, and even North into Canada," explained Scott. "It
was an intricate area which held a lot of jobs and entertainment."
So how do we explain the miracle which has kept the Club alive?
"Buffalo has a lot of pure jazz lovers; it is a music town,"
Scott hypothesized, "not only music but any kind of arts.
We can only hope that the great legacy left by this Club will
carry on into the future and that it will be around for upcoming
generations to visit, both in the names of education and an old
fashioned good time."
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