The year was 1917.
Buffalo was thriving as a steel-making, grain-milling town, an important shipping port with a growing population of nearly a half million residents. The city became a magnet for southern and rural black Americans lured by attractive jobs in the steel mills and other companies.
But that growing black population bumped into plenty of racial roadblocks, especially in the music field, where unions reigned supreme. Any Buffalo musician wanting to play a downtown gig had to join Local 43 of the American Federation of Musicians. Both the local and the national union, though, were strictly segregated, barring black musicians from joining.
So on Feb. 3, 1917, a century ago this month, eight local black musicians formed their own union, Local 533. That local soon morphed into the Colored Musicians Club, which later moved to the corner of Broadway and Michigan Avenue.
The club still stands today, anchored by the first-floor interactive Colored Musicians Club museum and an active second-floor music club.
The 100th anniversary provides another chance to shine some light on one of the pillars of Buffalo’s rich black history.
The local union left a sizable dent in that wall of segregation, making music a career option for talented black Buffalonians. But the club formed from that union may have created an even bigger impression, forming a kinship and major link among various generations of musicians while also attracting the kings and queens of black music – Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole and Lena Horne were among them.
“This is black history,” said George K. Arthur, a board member and former Buffalo Common Council president. “A lot of Buffalo’s black history has been destroyed – buildings torn down, [history] not talked about, not written about. The union is one of the pillars of the black community,” along with fraternal organizations and black churches.
“It’s how we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps” he said.
George W. Scott, the club’s president, says there is more to the story.
“It’s not only black history, it’s Buffalo history,”he said "We should be proud that these were Buffalonians who achieved all this.”
Establishing a black local in 1917 was no easy feat for the eight musicians, including Jesse Clipper, who would become the first black soldier from Buffalo killed in World War I.
“They saw the white musicians out there making money,” Scott said. “They knew they were just as good, but they were limited by the color of their skin. They had to fight to get a local, they cherished it, and they made sure it was the best damn local in the country.”
Under the eight founders’ leadership, the union gradually made inroads playing in the clubs, hotels and night spots around town, according to an 8½-minute video available at the museum.
The local’s first home apparently was on William Street, though the exact location has been lost to history. In February 1918, members gathered to celebrate their first anniversary with a party, and they had such a good time, they decided to do it more often, Scott said. That’s the origin of the Colored Musicians Club, where members met regularly to jam, play cards, eat and drink.
Aided by its geography, its status as a transportation hub and its strong black musicians’ union, Buffalo became a hot spot for musicians traveling the circuit from Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit to New York starting in the 1930s, according to the museum’s video.
That video, narrated by actor Stephen Henderson, describes the lofty standards set by the local that earned Buffalo a national and international reputation among musicians.
“It wasn’t easy to join Local 533 – there was a test of musical skill to pass first,” Henderson states in the video. “You had to play before a select group of tough critics, serious local players with big reputations. And you had to be good. That’s how Buffalo became famous for some of the nation’s best musicians. After hearing this high level of musicianship, band leaders often recruited players from Local 533 for work in New York, Europe and nationwide tours.”
Arthur pointed out that one legendary blues musician couldn’t get into the union, because he couldn’t read. And others were suspended if they missed too many union meetings.
Sense of camaraderie
It would be difficult for 21st Century music lovers to understand the camaraderie between the biggest national stars and their Buffalo music brethren of that era.
First, even the national superstars couldn’t stay in the top Buffalo hotels, which were strictly segregated. So they stayed in the black hotels – or in black musicians’ homes. And after their public performances, the big stars headed for the Colored Musicians Club.
“After the show was done, you’re still kind of amped up,” Scott said, explaining the musicians’ mindset. “You wanted to burn off the energy or adrenaline. It’s like a natural high, and you wanted to come down. This was a place where you came and hung out and talked about the gig and traded ideas. They would play pool, they would play cards, and they would jam.”
Increasingly, the national superstars began playing with the local musicians, and letting them sit in with their big bands.
That created a lot of mutual respect.
“The national artists – the Dukes, the Counts, the Dizzys, Ella Fitzgerald– they respected the local musicians so much,” Scott said. “So our guys here went on the road playing with Dizzy or Ella or Lena Horne.”
Scott, a 59-year-old Buffalo native who earned a degree in psychology from Canisius College, raved about the camaraderie between local and national musicians. A huge photo gracing one wall of the Colored Musicians Club’s first-floor museum shows Dizzy Gillespie at the piano, surrounded by John Coltrane, Miles Davis and local musicians Wilbur Trammell and Elvin Shepherd.
“It really was a great kinship between musicians, not the egos you see today,” he said. “They knew they had to stand together, because of the segregation and racism.”
Scott, a sax player who arrived at the club in the early 1970s, also experienced the camaraderie among different generations of local musicians.
“These guys were so great. It was like having extended fathers and grandfathers. They took me under their wing. They nurtured and coached us, because they knew we would be the future of their music and this place.”
Telling a story
In 1934, Local 533 moved into its current building at 145 Broadway, at Michigan Avenue. The following year, in July 1935, the union leaders did something really clever, incorporating the organization in the name of the club, not the local union. They knew their local eventually would merge with Local 43, the “white” union, and that did happen in 1969.
So Local 533 vanished, but the Colored Musicians Club survived to this day.
Why haven’t they changed the name from the sometime-offensive word “colored”?
“These guys had to fight like crazy to make this possible,” Scott said. “To change the name would be an insult to what they did. And when people ask why we didn’t change it, it gives me the chance to tell their story.”
A rich story indeed.