Saturday, October 20, 2012

AFM 471 - The Black Musicians Union

 Program from 1962 AFM Convention in Pittsburgh with Local #471 officers
 including Joe Westray, Ruby Younge & Walt Harper; from Pitt Labor Legacy

The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was founded in October 1896 as a national, and soon to become international, labor union for the musical profession. The Pittsburgh Musical Society Local 60 was chartered in 1897 to represent the white musicians in the Pittsburgh area.

The Pittsburgh African American Musicians' Association was started in 1906, and in 1908, the American Federation of Labor granted the group a charter to form Local 471 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), also known as the Musicians Protective Union. The locals became "separate but equal."

Locals 60 & 471, as were all locals in the AFM, were charged with the following duties: setting and enforcing scale for members' services, settling beefs between members or members and the venues, and to generally protect their members' professional interests.

The presidents of Local 471 were elected for a two year term, with no term limits. Sadly, the earliest leaders names have been lost in the mists of time. The first known president was Henry "Prez" Jackson, who held office from 1938 to the mid-forties when Stoney Gloster took the reins until 1954. Then Carl Arter held the post until 1958 when Joe Westray became the union's last president, heading the local until the 1965 merger with AFM 60. He then became one of the three reps from 471 to serve on the joint board, along with Carl Arter and Ruby Younge Hardy.

The unwritten but nevertheless fiercely protected boundary was above Grant Street. Black bands could play at clubs above Grant in the Hill and in parts of the North Side, Homewood and Wilkinsburg.

The union protected its members by confronting and, if need be, physically yanking performers from the bandstand who weren't dues-paying members to protect the $50 tor $60 per gig the players generally received. And Local 60 watched its clubs like a hawk too, picketing and more whenever a group from 471 or any other outsider infringed on one of their stages.

Local 471's hall and Musician's Club was located on 1213 Wylie Avenue by Crawford Street. The club had offices and a bar/restaurant on the first floor, with a piano bar and rehearsal space on the second floor.

The building came complete with a storied musical past. It had originally been the Collins Inn, an early Pittsburgh jazz club where Lois Deppe and His Serenaders started in 1919. Then numbers king Gus Greenlee bought the Collins and renamed it the Paramount Club in 1922.

The dance hall/speakeasy featured the Paramount Inn Orchestra, proclaimed by the Pittsburgh Courier to be the city's best band. The club was a bit rowdy; it was shut down by the police twice. And both were "Black and Tan" clubs, catering to an integrated crowd. Local 471 took over the building in the early-to-mid thirties after Greenlee left to open the Crawford Grill in 1931.

First and foremost, it was a hiring hall for black artists. The dressed to the nines musicians used to gather on Wednesday and Thursday on Wylie and Fullerton Streets - better known as "The Crossroads of the World" - as a cattle call location for club owners looking to fill a date. Now both the players and the bookers had a place to do business. The hall signed on players for not only concerts and gigs, but placed them in touring bands and shows, too.

Noted card carriers of Local 471 included George Benson, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Art Blakey, James "Blood" Ulmer, Tommy & Stanley Turrentine, Roy Eldridge, Jimmy Ponder, Billy Strayhorn, Grover Mitchell, Ray Brown and Ahmad Jamal.

It also included local stalwarts like Leroy Brown, Walt Harper, Harold Betters, Ruby Younge Hardy, Joe Westray, Honey Boy Minor, Roger Humphries and Nelson Harrison, along with hundreds of meat-and-potato musicians. Common Pleas Judge Warren Watson, who was player in his younger days, served for a spell as legal counsel for Local 471.

It was also a general hang-out for the members, who loafed, shot the breeze, ate, drank, jammed, rehearsed and auditioned in the hall which served as a virtual home away from home. And then there was the Musician's Club.

Its renown as a music venue came about thanks to Prez Jackson, who had the foresight to add a liquor license and associate memberships (earned the same way as in most clubs: a hopeful was vouched for by a member and confirmed by the board, which then issued a card) in 1941, turning the union hall into one of the Hill's most popular - and legal - after hours clubs. And in keeping with the tradition, it was a "Black and Tan" building for both patrons and musicians.

In fact, much of Local 471's reputation came through its Musicians Club. Performers and fans mixed to drink, eat and be entertained in the bar and restaurant on the first floor, then catch the acts in the second floor Musician's Club. LeRoy Brown played Sunday nights, when the regular clubs were closed, other bands played contemporary sounds on the weekend to draw in the customers, and there were regularly scheduled "talent nights."

Wednesday's were "Celebrity Night" with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Wynonie Harris, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster, Cab Calloway and Coleman Hawkins, with the shows sometimes running from ten at night to four in the morning. And you didn't want to miss the wee hour jams.

The headliners would join with locals like George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, and company to trade licks, especially those from the bebop school, which was pushed hard by Tommy Turrentine. Some of the guys that played downtown, like members of the Claude Thornill or Charlie Barnet bands, would head to the Hill after the show to jam with the Pittsbugh cats, as would artists after playing one of the Hill jazz houses. So would some of the more hep members of AFM 60, who eschewed the Dixieland style of jamming at their downtown hall (on 9th Street and Penn Avenue) and trooped to the Musician's Club.

The music created was enthralling, and it kept more than the customers on their toes. The locals would often play a number and switch keys to tweak the sound, and if you were asleep at the wheel when they did, well, your record contract wouldn't save you.

One famous story told by Joe Negri, related in "Crossroads of the World" by Colter Harper, had a tipsy Stan Getz joining the stage to play with Jamal, who he had irritated by calling "kid" once or twice. Ahmad played “The Song is You” in an off key, and Getz tripped over a bridge, picked up his tenor and slunk out of the club, tail tucked between his legs.

But the jam sessions were much more than a chance to trade chops. The interaction between local musicians and touring band members also served as an introduction and sometimes an impromptu audition for a ticket out of Pittsburgh. The union also had a moment in the spotlight when it co-hosted the AFM International convention in Pittsburgh in 1962 with AFM 60.

Changes, though, were in the air, and they wouldn't be good ones for AFM 471.

The Musician’s Club building on Wylie Avenue was torn down in the fifties after 25 years of service for the Civic Arena project. Local 471 moved to a Centre Avenue storefront in 1954, then to a bar on Frankstown Avenue in East Liberty. It moved again in the late fifties to Westray Plaza on Lincoln Avenue in Larimer until the 1965 merger.

Yep, the merger. During the late fifties, the AFM international began to pressure white and African-American locals to consolidate. Simply put, the union realized that regions could no longer operate separate locals on the basis of race alone. But it wasn't until 1966, as a result of the new AFL-CIO desegregation policy brought on by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and after a year of negotiations, that black Local 471 was merged with white Local 60. The two became AFM Local 60-471, aka the Pittsburgh Musical Society and then later the Pittsburgh Musicians Union.

Leadership positions remained for the most part in the hands of the white musicians. The numbers were stacked against the black musicians, with 2,000 AFM 60 members (it also represented groups like the PSO and CLO) compared to 300 card-carriers for AFM 471.

To make matters worse, many of 471's membership records were lost during the merger, and that cost many musicians their seniority rights and benefits. (Although it should be noted that the club moved four times in a decade, and that was probably part of the problem).

But there were so many SNAFUs during the transition that many African American musicians quit the union. The result was a virtually five year drought of black union musicians playing in the City following the merger.

In fact, a handful of black musicians took the merger to court in 1970. The initial five year plan insured black representation until then, but when it expired, no black members were elected to fill any union positions. The US Third Appeals Court ruled that the merger didn't discriminate against the black musicians on that basis, and the Supreme Court refused to act on the case, letting the decision stand, and that was that.

Things are better now, after nearly fifty years of operating under the AFM 60-471 banner. But the history of the Black Musician's Union was all hearsay until former member and trumpet player Charles Austin decided it was time to get it down in black and white as part of the mission of the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, which he helped found.

Austin recorded seventy-four interviews of members regarding the lore of Local 471, preserved in the University of Pittsburgh Archives as part of the AAJPSOP Oral History Project.

This summer, members of the Society held a memorial for Austin, who passed away in May, while unveiling a state historical marker at Crawford Street between Wylie and Webster Avenues to commemorate AFM 471.

It reads "Organized in 1908, this local was one of the first African American musicians unions in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was at the forefront of the jazz world in the mid-20th century, & jazz greats Mary Lou Williams, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, & George Benson, among others, were members. A controversial merger with the white union local in the 1960s ended one of the oldest black union organizations in the US. Headquarters was nearby, 1940-1954."

And that, in a nutshell, contains the 65-year history of the Black Musicians Union, AFM Local 471.

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