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The Blue Note: Seattle’s Black Musicians' Union A Pictorial History

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The following is an excerpt from the preface of The Blue Note: Seattle's Black Musicians' Union A Pictorial History by David Keller (Our House Publishing, 2013).

This is a story about the hopes and dreams of a small group of African American men and women. They ran their own union in Seattle beginning in the early 1900s. This union was the American Federation of Musicians' Union Local 493. Its members had a dream that they should be able to play their own brand of jazz music and receive a fair wage for this service. They should be able to elect their own leaders, control their own territory, and run their business from their own headquarters.

Such an idea placed them in direct conflict with the dominant white players of Seattle's music establishment. It also ensured that their journey would not be an easy one. It is a musical tale filled with woe, but it is also a powerful story that uplifts with its sheer dogged determination. And it swings.

The Blue Note is a sort of David and Goliath pictorial history. It involves a small band of thirty to fifty determined African American union musicians who tried to control part of their destiny in work-a-day Seattle. First in 1918 with the American Federation of Musicians' (AFM) Local 458, and then in 1924 with Local 493, the union became an institution. These humble beginnings were at a shared meeting space at the 2024 Fourth Avenue headquarters of the powerful white musicians' Local 76 under decidedly Jim Crow conditions. Later during much of the 1930s and 1940s its space was at the home of 493's President Gerald Wells. From the early 1950s until amalgamation in 1956, Local 493 operated from a modest one-room business office. Here the fabled "Blue Note," as the club house style local was known, operated dispensing union justice and its own brand of union culture. Located at 1319 East Jefferson, it took care of business, held swinging after-hours jam sessions with famous out of town ringers, served patrons up a cool taste at a full bar, and took in all comers who wanted to be part of a more relaxed and fraternal musical endeavor.

This chapter of our shared cultural history is now a dim memory. Most of the men and women who were around during this time are gone. Yet their photographs and memorabilia bring alive a special time. It was an era when blacks were not on a level playing field with whites. This must have been particularly galling in the entertainment fields, despite the often superior strengths of "race" musicians. In an early, and rare successful effort to better themselves and to control a portion of their economic destiny, Seattle's black musicians organized their own union. Politically cunning union musicians such as "Yellow Dog Democrat" Powell Barnett, Charles Adams, Virginia Hughes, and Leon Jackson, among others lead this effort. The stories in The Blue Note can remind and inspire us about past achievements. The segregated musicians of Local 493 faced long odds and survived for almost 30 years. Overcoming prejudice and discriminatory interpretations of union law frequently laid down by the "parent," white local 76, a resilient group of jazz musicians held their own. Specifically, they controlled their own turf, established and adhered to the AFM union pay scale, and, when necessary, disciplined their own members.

Along the way they seem to have had fun. When it came to matters of music and race, Local 493 were miles ahead of its mother local. Trumpeter, composer, educator, and 493 union stalwart, Floyd Standifer, recalled that Local 76 officials would have let jazz and bebop music die. He recalled these officials maintaining that black musicians "were just playing a bunch of wrong notes." Another lasting contribution of the American Federation of Musicians' Local 493 was that it took in all interested parties. Beginning in the 1930s, white bassist Bill Rinaldi gave up on the white musicians' local, and joined African American 493. Other Caucasian musicians including Mike DeFillipis and Kenny Boas opted out of the white union. They preferred a non-old-boy system, where they were free to play jazz and jam in a more relaxed atmosphere. Such inclusive practices, prompted Standifer to refer to his union as a "Rainbow Coalition." Strengthening this claim is the fact that in addition to Caucasian members, both Hawaiian- and Hispanic-surnamed individuals were also 493 union members.

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