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Jazzing up Broadway Colored Musicians Club museum to bolster heritage corridor

The Colored Musicians Club is a special place for many people.

Ellis Marsalis -- patriarch of the famous family that includes Wynton and Branford -- played there with Miles Davis.

Louis Armstrong's family still sends $35 membership dues every year.

And B.B. King's wife remains a member of the famed club, which got its liquor license in July 1935.

"Jazz is the only art form that was created in the United States by African-Americans, and the [Colored Musicians Club] was the source for jazz," said Danny Williams, the club's vice president. "It was the only spot in Buffalo where African-Americans could come and play."

For two years, to commemorate that July event, the club has held free outdoor jazz festivals on the last Saturday of the month. The third annual festival will takes place from noon to 9 p.m. Saturday on the blocked-off street in front of the club at 145 Broadway.

Besides showcasing musicians from Western New York and Southern Ontario, the festival will include a raffle to raise funds to open a museum at the location by early next year. The museum is envisioned as the next step in developing an African-American heritage corridor in the Michigan Avenue-Broadway area.

In addition to the Musicians Club, the corridor includes the Nash House -- which opened to tourists this spring -- and the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church.

All three sites are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Once all three are up and running as museums, re-enactments and
events would tie them together as one destination point for tourists.

"It's a fit," Williams said. "We're forming the new 'cultural triangle' with the Musicians Club, the church and the Nash House.

"We all speak to what was going on in terms of African-Americans coming North. The church and the Nash House made sure slaves got free, and . . . the club provided a method by which they could make a living and get entertainment."

The Broadway building that houses the Colored Musicians Club was built in 1895, Williams said. In 1917, a union -- Local 533, American Federation of Musicians -- was started in the basement by black musicians barred from white unions.

As black artists came North, they couldn't secure gigs unless they were in the union, Williams said. The club purchased the building in 1935.

The Nash House Museum, at 36 Nash St., contains artifacts from the life of the Rev. J. Edward Nash, pastor of Michigan Street Baptist Church from 1892 to 1953.

He helped to establish the local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. He also was a leader of the Ministers Alliance of Buffalo, an interracial group.

The church, at 511 Michigan, was one of last stops on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom in Canada.

These remnants of a once-vibrant African-American community have received national historic designation, which means they are eligible for tax credits and have better access to grants.

More importantly, the designation means the structures will be preserved.

For the Musicians Club, that means the worn out beveled ceiling of copper and tin will have to be restored, and the trap door in the back that leads to a wooden staircase must be left in tact. The door came in handy during the Prohibition era when customers had to scramble out to evade police.

Patrons weren't so successful during another raid, though, when authorities came through a second-floor side window. The next day, Williams said, masons were called to the building to brick over the window.

Arrest records from the raid are tucked away in the basement, just above the Union Hall on the ground floor, which will house the museum. Wanda Davis, a Buffalo State College professor who directed a project on the centennial celebration of the Niagara Movement in Buffalo, will curate the museum for free, Williams said.

The museum will include such other artifacts as decades-old marching band uniforms and a sousaphone the club's band used for Fourth of July and Memorial Day parades.

A Stradivarius trumpet -- manufactured sometime between 1890 and 1895 -- that was found in the basement in mint condition will be exhibited, Williams said, as well as volumes of original compositions from the 1920s and 1930s.

For more information on Saturday's jazz festival or the museum, call 896-7615.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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