On stage, George Scott is the high-energy bandleader who fronts the George Scott Big Band and performs for large crowds at Canalside, Curtain Up and other shows. Off stage, as president of the Colored Musicians Club, he’s one of the guiding forces who has helped the club become the oldest of its kind in the United States, a living testament to Buffalo and music history.
"It’s not so much black history or our history — it’s the city’s history, and this is just another story," he said.
Opened in 1934 at the corner of Broadway and Michigan Avenue, the club quickly became a gathering place for black musicians, who were permitted to perform in white clubs but barred from socializing there afterward. As a result, they came to the Colored Musicians Club, operated by the African-American union Local 533, to unwind, eat and jam. Legends like Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis also came through and performed, giving Buffalo musicians a chance to meet the greats and even earn a spot in their band.
As a young musician, Scott first came to the club in the early 1970s, shortly after Local 533 merged with the white union Local 43, at a time when music was shifting toward rock and R&B.
"I would just sit there and listen to these guys in these bands, the power of their sound, the improvising — they were really something," he said, sitting at the club bar today. "They welcomed me and gave me tips on what to study and what not to do, and I was hooked."
Scott later formed his band in 1997 and was named club president in 2000, a post he’s held since. In that time, he’s helped shore up the organization’s finances, kept the second-floor club operating and, in 2012, opened an engaging, interactive museum on the first floor to highlight the history of the club and jazz music more broadly.
"We had to figure out a way to save this place and get it back on an upswing. The light went off in our heads that the greatest asset we have is the history — who’s been here, all the famous people," said Scott, who also serves as vice chair for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission. "We invited families of past members to the grand opening and we knew we did it right when we saw whole families standing in front of their dad or grandfather’s picture with tears in their eyes, thanking us for doing it."
Every summer, the organization hosts the Queen City Jazz Festival, and this year’s was its largest yet: a six-day celebration dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Local 43’s formation. At press time, the Colored Musicians Club also was preparing to begin construction on a 500-square-foot addition that would add an elevator and new stairway for improved access.
"You know how they say, ‘Last person, turn off the light?’
I didn’t want to be the last person. That’s why the museum is very important," Scott said. "Now, we’re back on the map again."