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Banding Together Against Segregation in Los Angeles

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Once upon a time, jazz musicians in Los Angeles led a groundbreaking struggle for racial justice and economic opportunity that sent ripples of change across the country.

Most of us are aware of the seminal names and events of the civil rights era: Rosa Parks spearheading the Montgomery bus boycott; Martin Luther King leading the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights; Jackie Robinson integrating the Brooklyn Dodgers, to name a few. But the big national needle-movers would never have happened if not for hundreds of lesser-known acts and accomplishments that occurred all across the nation.

The struggle to de-segregate the musicians union in Los Angeles was one of these.

Separate But Not Equal

In the 1940s, all the musicians unions across the country, with the exception of Detroit and New York, were segregated. Each city had a white union and a non-white union. In Los Angeles, the white union, Local 47, was located in Hollywood. The non-white union, Local 767, was created because Local 47 denied membership to non-white musicians. The offices of Local 767 were located in the heart of the Black community: Central Avenue.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Central Avenue was the epicenter of Black culture and entertainment in Los Angeles. Venues like Club Alabam and the Dunbar Hotel featured some of the top acts in the world such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Miles Davis. The area drew both Black and white patrons, including celebrities like Lana Turner, Orson Welles, and Ava Gardner.

Local 767 was situated in a large, somewhat dilapidated house. More than a hiring hall, it was a place to meet friends, rehearse, hang out. Clora Bryant, a jazz trumpeter and one of the few women in Local 767, remembers:

"It was a congregating place, where you go and socialize or get a job...You'd walk in there, and there would be Basie's band upstairs rehearsing or Duke Ellington's band or Benny Carter or Nat King Cole."


The Local 767 scene was rich in creative exchange and a sense of community. But these positive aspects were offset by cold economic facts: The better paying jobs such as working in movies and radio went almost exclusively to members of Local 47. White musicians could freely play in the Central Avenue clubs, but Black musicians had a hard time getting any work in Hollywood.

This situation was particularly hard to swallow for veterans of World War II who had just risked their lives fighting against fascism and racism abroad, only to return to racist conditions at home.

As saxophonist Buddy Collette explains:

"We thought about it, especially a bunch of the guys who had been in the service, and Mingus, who hadn't been in the military. We kept thinking, 'Man, we'll never make it with two unions, because we're getting the leftovers.' All the calls came to 47."


Making Change

Buddy Collette and Charles Mingus, along with drummer Bill Douglass and pianist Marl Young, formed the core group that decided to challenge the longstanding tradition of segregated unions. They knew that in order to integrate the two locals, both Black and white musicians would have to work together. Both locals would have to agree to merge or, in official language: amalgamate. Collette recalls:

"The actual beginning of the amalgamation, I'll give Mingus credit for that. He was always fighting the battle of the racial thing. He got a job with Billy Eckstine at the Million Dollar Theatre on Broadway. Mingus was the only nonwhite or black in the band. Since Billy Eckstine was a black leader, he figured, 'Why couldn't there be a few blacks in there?' Mingus was the only one, and he let them know that he didn't like it. And he could be tough on you. Everybody in the band had to hear it every day. 'You guys are prejudiced! You should have some more blacks. You could hire Buddy Collette there.' So my name was being tossed around every day until the guys even hated me without knowing me! I was finally invited down and I was curious about the band. We wanted to meet people that understood what we were talking about: the unions getting together, people getting together, stopping all this. I met their flutist, Julie Kinsler who supported the idea, and the drummer Milt Holland. Milt said, 'Man, we've been wanting to do this, too. I know about six or eight people that think just the way you guys do. We can get together and start meeting or something.' Mingus and I lit up, because that was the first time we heard anybody who was excited about it."


However, not all Black musicians were gung-ho for de-segregating the union—including the 767 leadership. The president of 767, Leo Davis, was adamantly against amalgamation. His reasoning was that if the locals merged, 767 would be swallowed up by the larger white local and Black musicians would lose whatever autonomy they currently possessed. Those who favored amalgamation suspected that the 767 leadership was more concerned about holding on to their own union jobs than with the rank-and-file members who would stand to benefit from the merger with access to expanded and better-paying work opportunities. Pushback against amalgamation also came from some Black musicians who had grown up in the South and wanted little to do with white people.

And how did the women musicians in 767 fit in with amalgamation? Clara Bryant, a trumpet player and member of 767 explains:

"I wasn't part of it. They weren't looking for any females to be a part of that. It was a male thing. They didn't have women's lib. It was the ones who had the desire to be a part of the studio scene—like Buddy Collette and Marl Young and Benny Carter. And nobody was knocking the door down to record women...The men were trying to get themselves in, so they definitely did not want that kind of competition."


Drummer Bill Douglass , remembers the next crucial step the activists took:

"Basically, all the younger guys, all of the progressive-style musicians, we finally decided to go to a union meeting [Local 767 the non-white local], and we're going to bring this up on the floor. I was the individual who was going to stand up on the floor and ask to be recognized and then bring on this question of black and white unions. We tried to bring up the subject on the floor, and we were gaveled down. We were 'out of order.' They didn't want to hear it. We began to realize, 'Well, you're not even going to get a voice in here. These old fogies, they're not going to let you say anything.'"


So Douglass, Collette and their group decided to run for union office. They put forth a slate of candidates and campaigned on a single issue: amalgamation. They held meetings, passed out literature, wrote letters, and circulated a petition among both Black and white musicians that called for integration of their unions.

Amalgamation advocates also formed a classical orchestra made up of both Black and white musicians. They called it the Community Symphony Orchestra. At the time, an interracial symphony orchestra was a trailblazing idea. One purpose of this orchestra was to foster camaraderie amongst all the musicians. Another was to show the pubic, and Hollywood decision-makers, that Black and white musicians were willing and eager to play together. A third purpose was for Black musicians to learn some of the chops needed to succeed at Hollywood studio work. Bassist David Bryant remembers:

"[The orchestra] was about having first-chair studio musicians teach the cats in each section. We were training for the studio jobs. Sometimes my teacher at the time, Mat Gangursky, a Russian Jew, came out and worked with the bass section. There were a whole lot of cats. Buddy Collette. Britt Woodman. He brought Horace Tapscott along."


De-segregation activists also formed an interracial jazz band that played for the public every Sunday afternoon. They invited top international performers to attend the concerts, and speak to the audience about union de-segregation. Addressing a packed house, both Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole urged all the musicians to get together into one union. During one concert, Frank Sinatra sent a written statement advocating union integration.

Support for the merger grew throughout 1950 and 1951. Finally, it was election time at Local 767. The pro-amalgamation slate ran Buddy Collette for president. Collette recalls:

"The incumbent guy beat me by about twenty votes out of four hundred... So the next year we tried again. We ran Benny Carter for president and he lost... But this time I ran for the board and got in. Marl got in. Bill Douglass won the vice-president's spot. Now we got a little power underneath the president, who was Leo Davis, who was a nice man. So we were able to move through resolutions and proposals towards a meeting with Local 47. And finally we got negotiations going."


To negotiate an agreement that was acceptable to both locals, critical issues needed to be ironed out. Local 47 (the white union) proposed that 767 "dissolve" and then 767 members could individually apply to join 47. But this was unacceptable to Black musician because under this agreement they would lose benefits such as seniority, lifetime membership, and death pay. Instead, Black organizers proposed a merger in which 767 would unite with 47 into a newly integrated 47. This way Black musicians would retain all of their earned economic benefits. Funds from the sale of Local 767's property on Central Avenue would go into the integrated union. Both negotiating committees eventually agreed to this plan.

Local 47, the white union, was the first to vote on the proposed merger. Marl Young remembers:

"There were about two thousand people voting in that election. Estelle and I were up all night, and George Kast (one of the white activists) called and said, 'Marl, we won!' We won by 233 votes. Now the black local had to vote on it. And remember we don't have a majority on the board, but we said, 'Well, now we'll put it up to the Local 767 membership and have a special election.' And we had to win by two-thirds of those voting. But we won easily. The black press helped us, and we campaigned like hell. We went on the radio. And we won."


It had taken three years of hard work, but in 1953 the two musicians unions in Los Angeles were de-segregated and united as one.

Legacy

The merging of 47 and 767 was a huge victory for racial justice. But what did it mean in the actual daily lives of the musicians?

Pianist Gerald Wiggins recalls:

"I think some of the guys felt at the time that if it was amalgamation they would lose the jobs that they had, but it didn't turn out that way. In fact, it opened up more opportunities for them. They weren't restricted to Central Avenue and things like that."


Adds Buddy Collette:

"Plus there's better health and welfare, and pension benefits. And it did allow some periods to be very lucrative for a lot of black musicians who were doing recording and shows through the years, shows like The Carol Burnett Show, The Danny Kaye Show, The Flip Wilson Show. Those shows began to hire people because they were all in the same union, and the word got around who could play, who couldn't. The other way we were isolated."


However, as pianist Horace Tapscott explains, there was a downside to amalgamation:

"The work was getting better, but a lot of the older players I didn't see anymore. They used to be around all the time on Central for one gig or another. All of them used to hang around the union. They'd just be there. When that closed down, they didn't have anyplace to go."


Adds Clora Bryant:

"We lost something that we'll never get back, and that was a togetherness. Central Avenue was a togetherness. We'll never have that again. Like every culture should have their own space—not being segregated—but just have a space where you feel free to do whatever you want to do."


The loss of Local 767 as a social and cultural hub coincided with the general demise of Central Avenue itself. With the end of restrictive covenants in housing, and new job opportunities opening up as some racial barriers in employment lessened, Black people began to move into new neighborhoods around the city. By the end of the 1950s, Central Avenue was no longer the vibrant economic and cultural axis it once had been. Change can be a mixed bag.

In the bigger picture, the amalgamation of the Los Angeles musicians union turned out to be a groundbreaking act. It sparked the de-segregation of more than thirty musicians locals across the country—leading to the end of all racial segregation in the American Federation of Musicians. It was one of the early lesser-known acts in the struggle for racial justice and economic equity that continues to this day.

Marl Young sums it up:

"We started accepting all members in Local 47 a year before the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954, of Brown v. the Board of Education. And that decision started the modern civil rights movement. We did it well before that. So what we did, I think, was rather remarkable. We did it on our own through cooperation between white and black musicians."

All quotes in this article come from interviews conducted by Steven Isoardi, for the Center for Oral History Research, University of California, Los Angeles, 1989-1996. All quotes used with permission of UCLA Special Collections.

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