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.

Today we are beginning to embrace the practices of inclusion and diversity. The stories here remind us that this process has been a long, complicated, and problem-filled one. Yet these stories and their accompanying images are also hopeful for the accomplishments and joyful camaraderie they celebrate. These stories inspire. And, if you cock your head just right you'll begin to hear as well as feel the music and spirit of a special era when things began to change. That said, what this volume strives to provide is a look at a largely untold story of jazz, race, and unionism. Within its covers you'll see photographs of and read about lesser known locals, as well as "name" players from early jazz times through the swing era and on into the heady days of bebop. To the necromancers of this art, those undersung, black, brown, and white musicians who were all members of the American Federation of Musicians' Union Locals 451 and 493, this one's for you.

Story #1

Local 493 member and bandleader, Earl Whaley, is depicted here high above the Shanghai skyline in 1937. Whaley took a septet to the St. Anna Ballroom, at 80 Love Lane, in the wide-open International District of Shanghai, China in July 1934. The original band featured Whaley on tenor and alto saxophones, along with other Seattle players Palmer Johnson on piano, Wayne Adams on baritone sax, Earl West on guitar, Oscar Hurst on trumpet, Fate Williams trombone, and Punkin Austin at the trap drums.

Beginning as early as 1922, Shanghai provided well-paid work for black musicians, who were treated with respect and dignity by their hosts. In a letter home, Palmer Johnson wrote that their band was a "big hit" and that Shanghai was a truly "cosmopolitan city with representatives of every race in the population," marred only by the "most rude-mannered and impolite of all races. . . the American white man." Johnson is not in this shot, having departed earlier in 1937. Featured in this nonette is the Shanghai-based pianist Pomping Villa. Personnel also changed on trombone, trumpet, tenor, and bass. The latter instrument was played by Reginald Jones, who joined Whaley after working with trumpeter Buck Clayton's Shanghai band. Known as "Jonesy," the bassist was another veteran from Gene Coy's Aces who'd settled in Seattle. Note too that the photo is signed "Jonesy."

Other Seattle musicians including 493 member and bandleader Jimmy Adams, as well as Nisei vocalist and Japanese Columbia Records artist, Chizuko Miyagawa,( a.k.a. Harumi Miyagawa), were in Shanghai during this same time. Adding spice to the Shanghai mix were prominent musicians such as Chicago-based pianist and Erskine Tate sideman, Teddy Weatherford, along with Buck Clayton. Clayton led his 14-piece "Harlem Gentlemen of Jazz" from 1934-1936 at a Chinese-owned club and casino called the Canidrome. Expatriate White Russian jazz musicians like Oleg and Igor Lundstrem also worked at Shanghai's Paramount ballroom. All in all there was plenty of hot jazz in the "City of Blazing Light" for Whaley, Palmer Johnson, and company. With decent period wages of $50 to $200 weekly, the crew had plenty of money for a good time, in "Yellow Babylon." Guidebooks speculated "Joy, gin and jazz. There's nothing puritanical about Shanghai." Something of an understatement, given that sex and drugs including heroin could all be had from hotel room service.

Story #2

Traveling, dues-paying, bands were an important source of income for Local 493. When out-of- town black bands like these played Seattle, they usually fed the black union's coffers by paying work dues, bringing in much-needed revenue. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were members of the American Federation of Musicians' union and were a rare all-female interracial band which played the Negro touring circuit throughout the country during the 1940s. During World War II the military draft decimated the ranks of the country's traditionally all-male big bands. This situation provided work for various "all girl" groups. Some of these included the International Sweethearts, as well as the black All-Star Girl Orchestra of Texas-born Eddie Durham. Both of these bands played concerts in Seattle in 1944. With parallels to "Rosie the Riveter" in Seattle's bustling World War II economy, the International Sweethearts toured frequently and were surely a source of race and gender pride to Seattle women in Local 493, the African American community, and others. The International Sweethearts originated from the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, traveling internationally as a swing big band from 1940-1949. The term "International" in the band's name served as a protective cover for band members who were black, white, Chinese, and Mexican. According to leader Anna Mae Windburn, "We had so many mixed girls, mulattas. . . ." as well as white alto player Roz Cron, who was coached to describe herself as "mixed." Such a covert line up resulted in frequent run-ins with the police, though not in Seattle. "So we had quite a time," Winburn noted, "we did a lot to break down prejudice in the South." The band also helped shatter the myth, commonly repeated in the literature, that female musicians couldn't play. Defying this stereotype, the Sweethearts swung hard. For example, this "all girl group" were popular favorites of the tough audiences at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and from 1941 to 1945, they performed at the venue as much as, or more than, their male counterparts.
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