AFM Local 493, Seattle's "Negro Musicians' Union," holds big benefit bash on May 29, 1951.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/20/2013
  • Essay 10330

On May 29, 1951, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Seattle Local 493 produces a major benefit concert and dance to raise money for its new offices and its relief fund. At the time Local 493, organized some three decades earlier by black musicians denied access to Seattle's first musicians' union, is one of two racially segregated AFM locals in the city. Its "1951 Orchestra Cavalcade" benefit features nine local African American bands performing uptown in the grand Senator Ballroom of Eagles Hall.

 A Tale of Two Unions  

The first musicians' union in Seattle to form and survive a significant amount of time was the Musicians' Association of Seattle, American Federation of Musicians Local 76, in 1898. Like similar unions across America at the time, it represented the interests of white musicians. Non-white players were rebuffed repeatedly by Local 76, whose unacceptable best offer, a proposed two-tiered Jim Crow membership system, came in 1913. Efforts then began to form a separate union. In 1918, Local 76 gave its approval, required by AFM rules, for the formation of AFM Local 458, which would represent black and other minority musicians.

However tension between the two unions erupted frequently over turf issues: 76 claimed all of the downtown territory that included the lucrative ballroom, theater, and hotel jobs, leaving 458 the scraps of speakeasies and dives of the tenderloin district in the oldest part of town below Yesler Way and along Jackson Street east towards Chinatown. Local 76 succeeded in having the newer local's charter revoked in April 1924. But a new replacement union, Local 493, received a charter that November and was formally created on December 9, 1924.

Over the following two decades Local 493 held its meetings in various locations (including, awkwardly, in Local 76's office where members of 493 were not welcome to socialize), but in April 1951 the union (which then had 83 members) happily purchased its own modest office building at 1319 E Jefferson Street in Seattle. This was used both as headquarters and as a private nightclub, formally incorporated as the "Musicians' Blue Note Club, Inc." but soon known as simply the Blue Note.

United Effort 

Facing the costs of remodeling their new offices -- as well as the ever-present need to refill the organization's relief-fund coffers -- union members drew up plans for holding a benefit concert. Nine of Seattle's most prominent black bands were recruited to perform and, with the assistance of Seattle's Gay Ladies Social Club, the Beta Kappa Chapter of the Iota Phi Lambda Sorority, and publicity provided by The Seattle Daily Times, everything was set for a splendid time.

The venue selected for the event was the grand Senator Ballroom of Eagles Hall at 1416 7th Avenue in Seattle, a site that Local 76 long jealously guarded as its domain. The building was originally constructed in 1925 as headquarters for the Fraternal Order of Eagles (a social club founded in Seattle in 1898 by, interestingly, a group of theater owners who first got together in part to cooperate against [white] musicians' efforts to organize a strike). By the 1950s its various auditoriums and ballrooms were being rented out for political rallies, boxing matches, and, mainly on off-nights, for African American-oriented activities.

The Orchestra Cavalcade  

On the Tuesday evening of May 29 nine ensembles performed at the 1951 Orchestra Cavalcade. In addition to prominent big-band orchestras and combos, the show also included solo vocalists and some comedy routines. The full program that night included:


  • Blues Interpretations (Vernon Brown Orch)
  • Standard Jazz Revelries (Joe Gauff Band)
  • Progressive Swing Classics (Bob Marshall Sextet)
  • Modern "Bop" Variations (Billy Tolles's Combo-Clashers)
  • Mellow Pianistics (Len Brook)
  • Entertaining Specialties (Bumps Blackwell Orch)


  • Musical Comedy (Jabo Ward Combo)
  • Original Torch Vocalization (Merceedees Walton)
  • Novel Instrumental Versatility (Four Question Marks)
  • Futuristic "Bop" Improvisation (Cecil Young Quartet)
  • "Jam Session" (Al Hickey's Jive Bombers)
Of these luminaries of the local jazz scene, it should be noted that Robert A. "Bumps" Blackwell (1918-1985) helped launch the careers of Ray Charles (1930-2004), Quincy Jones (b. 1933), Sam Cooke (1931-1964), and Little Richard (b. 1932); sax-man Billy Tolles (1924-2005) helped introduce Seattle to swing, bebop, rhythm & blues, and, later, rock 'n' roll, with a series of combos that included the Savoy Boys, Billy Tolles and his Men of Jive, the Combo-Clashers, the Four Question Marks, and the Vibrators. Merceedees A. Walton's (1912?-2000) rollicking piano work and spirited singing long thrilled fans at the Sorrento Hotel's Top o' the Town room and (from 1952 to 1956) on her own trail-blazing daily Music With Merceedees program on KING-TV. Cecil Young (ca. 1920-ca. 1975) has been credited with debuting bebop jazz in the Northwest.  

The following year, on May 29, 1952, Local 493 held a second annual Orchestra Cavalcade, this time at the Trianon Ballroom in Seattle at 218 Wall Street. It featured the same entertainers as the first show, but with the addition of the area's premier Dixieland band, the Rainy City Jazz Band, and Seattle's soon-to-be-famous jazz diva, Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016).

Sources: "Musicians' Club Acquires Quarters," The Seattle Times, April 14, 1951, p. 2; "9 Orchestras to Present Union Benefit Concert," Ibid., May 27, 1951, p. 9; "'Cavalcade' of Music to Be Given May 29," Ibid., May 21, 1952, p. 19; David Keller, "Seattle's Segregated Musicians' Union, Local 493 (1918-1956)" (master of arts thesis, Western Washington University, 1996), pp. 26, 51-52, 134; "1951 Orchestra Cavalcade" program (Seattle, 1951), 2, 7, 13, Peter Blecha collection, Seattle, Washington; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "'Negro Musicians' Union,' AFM Seattle Local 493 (1918-1958)" (by Peter Blecha), (accessed February 19, 2013).
Note: This essay was updated on March 23, 2016.

Related Topics:   Black Americans | Labor | Music & Musicians | Organizations

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