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Heart and soul of Buffalo music? echoes in Colored Musicians Club <br> New museum opens? doors to glorious past

If the walls of the Colored Musicians Club could talk, they wouldn't stop there. They would sing and scat.

The place has that kind of vibe. Standing in the century-old, narrow building at 145 Broadway, the club's current president, George Scott, can get misty.

He is envisioning the days when Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole and other greats headed down to the club after their appearances in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Now, those days are coming alive again.

The rich history of Buffalo's Colored Musicians Club is being celebrated with a new museum on the ground floor. It opens today with a noon ribbon-cutting. Present at the grand opening will be such club luminaries as former City Judge Wilbur Trammell, who owned the bygone Little Harlem Hotel, and Doristine Tydus Blackwell, who used to sing at the club and enjoyed a spell of national renown.

"We've been working for 2 1/2 , three years putting this together," said George K. Arthur, former president of the Common Council, who helped move the project forward.

Designed with the help of the Baird and Wendt foundations and other donors, the museum introduces visitors to jazz in a way that is vivid, personal – and Buffalo-centric.

The club's saga emerges in a video narrated by actor Stephen Henderson, who takes visitors back to the 19th century. There are glimpses of brass bands, street parades and jam sessions involving the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.

Nearby, a row of brightly colored panels pays tribute to legends of the Colored Musicians Club. Headphones allow listeners to sample their artistry.

Beneath the arch gaze of a young, sassy Dodo Greene, you may listen to her singing "My Hour of Need" with saxophonist Ike Quebec and his combo. A video screen lets you watch Doristine Blackwell on "Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour," a national TV show, in 1961.

Names like Al Tinney and Joe "Groove" Madison are well-known to longtime Buffalo jazz fans. But the museum works in a few surprises.

Who knew, for instance, that Lil Armstrong – the wife of Louis Armstrong and the pianist on many of his records – had a Buffalo connection? In the 1930s, she led an all-male band based here.

Blues fans will love learning that Pete Johnson, the great barrelhouse pianist from Kansas City immortalized in the Big Joe Turner number "Roll 'em Pete," was also a Buffalo guy. He lived here from 1950 until his death in 1967.

"He's buried in Forest Lawn," Scott said.

Met with a look of amazement, he laughed. "See, that's the whole idea of this museum," he said.

The museum's attractive exhibits shine in tones of orange, red and purple – rich hues borrowed from a unifying mural painted by artist Bill Cooper.

There are free-wheeling, humorous touches. Next to a beautiful old Victrola labeled "Phonograph, 1877" is a beat-up stereo labeled "Boombox, 1976." You may also feast your eyes on "Walkman, 1979."

The club represents many aspects of music.

"The Colored Musicians Club history is not just jazz," Scott emphasized. "It's blues, R&B, gospel and classical."

When it was founded in the 1930s, Buffalo's Colored Musicians Club was not unusual. Under segregation, white musicians arriving in town would check in with the white musicians' union, and black musicians with the local black musicians' union.

What sets Buffalo apart is that, in 1969, when the unions merged, the Colored Musicians Club, which used to be Local 533, was preserved. Both blacks and whites recognized its historic importance and the worth of remembering the past.

The museum conjures up that past in the generous audio clips, which offer entire songs, uninterrupted. A jukebox near the door also takes you back in time.

There are also reminders, though, that the music is alive.

A corner bandstand displays a group of instruments, including the drums bearing the name of the late Kenny Greene, the distinguished Buffalo jazz drummer (and circulation and transportation manager for The Buffalo News). Lights and buttons help identify the sounds of the various instruments.

By the bandstand is a display that could be called an improvisation station.
Visitors may listen to three songs that demonstrate how instruments work together. One song is "Over the Rainbow" (overhead is a dour photo of Harold Arlen, the Buffalo native who wrote it). Another is "Mr. Magic" by Grover Washington Jr., another Buffalo native, and the third is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train." Graphic equalizers let you to isolate various instruments and listen to them solo and in combination.

It's easy to imagine that such exhibits could inspire people to explore music further. And, perhaps, learn an instrument.

And then – who knows? – take that instrument upstairs to the club's historic barroom, and jam.

Such an outcome would surely do the clubs' founders proud.

As Scott said: "The club continues as a lasting legacy of [Local] 533."