Today's labor union for Seattle's professional musicians is the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 76-493, and that cumbersome name reflects perfectly the organization's tangled and sometimes contentious backstory. Seattle's first musicians' union, AFM Local 76, dated to the 1890s. As ever-greater numbers of African Americans arrived in the young, growing town, the musicians among them discovered that the union had an unwritten segregation policy. A complex, Jim Crow system of turf boundaries arose, with Local 76 musicians claiming the most lucrative jobs. Black musicians founded their own union, Local 458, in 1918. That organization morphed into Local 493 in 1924, and the two unions co-existed inharmoniously for the next four decades. AFM 493 became a lifeline and social pillar for the Black community. It was at the center of Seattle's vibrant jazz scene, and bore its share of struggles throughout the era's civil rights strife. At its peak in the 1940s, Local 493 had about 150 members (compared to Local 76's 1,200), and represented some of Seattle's biggest stars, including Ray Charles (1930-2004), Phil Moore (1918-1987), and Quincy Jones (b. 1933). But changing times and increased racial tolerance led to a merger of the two unions in 1958.
A Tale of Two Unions
In the early years after Seattle's founding in 1852, the townsfolk enjoyed a fair amount of musical entertainment, both that made by members of the community and that brought by the occasional touring performer or ensemble. It was in 1860 that George F. Frye (1833-1911) -- a member of the Bethel party that had arrived via the Oregon Trail in 1853 -- organized the fledgling town's first musical group, the dozen-strong Seattle Brass Band, which played at picnics and other events and marched in parades. As Seattle grew, it came to boast taverns, theaters, and dancehalls that all provided opportunities for more bands and entertainers. But for the first four decades of Seattle's existence, there seemed to be little need for those musicians to organize any sort of professional trade- or craft-oriented association. In time, though, the city's musicians would, like their peers across America, discover the value of forming a union -- or more precisely, two distinct unions.
The concept of a musicians' union in America -- one that could enforce union-scale pay rates -- was likely hatched in New York City when the Mutual Musical Protective Union was launched in 1862
"for the purpose of protecting the members and their interests, [and] ... to protect the profession from impostors who had entered its ranks, and by dint of smart management had the business all in their own hands, and paid the performers whatever they saw fit ... . If a member of a band or orchestra complained, he was suspended or excluded from the business altogether; so that many a musician had quietly to submit to every imposition which the dishonest leader might see fit to impose upon him" (The New York Times, 1865).
Well, that and a zillion other occupational headaches that can dependably befall a musician at every gig.
An early attempt to organize nationwide came in 1870 with the founding of the National Association of Musicians, but that folded after about five years. The following decade saw formation of the National League of Musicians (NLM), but internal dissent raged over affiliation with the general labor movement of the day. Numerous chapters (or "locals") opened in various cities, with San Francisco's being the closest to Seattle. NLM rules stated that new applicants seeking to form a local in their own town needed to obtain written permission from the nearest existing local. In 1889, some Seattle musicians petitioned the San Francisco office by telegraph and they were granted the authority to form an NLM branch.
NLM Local 30/AFM Local 76
On November 2, 1890, 79 musicians attended Seattle's first union-local planning meeting, held in the old Armory Hall at 4th Avenue and Union Street, and the Musicians' Mutual Protective Union (MMPU), Local 30 of the NLM, came into formal existence on November 7, 1890. An office was set up in Room 219 of the Seattle Block at 3rd Avenue and Columbia Street, and Local 30 began holding general meetings at the Western Central Labor headquarters, presided over by its first president, L. E. Booth, who served from 1892 to 1898. In late 1896, some members of the National League of Musicians formed the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), which was chartered as an affliate of the American Federation of Labor (A.F. of L.) and eventually grew to subsume the NLM.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the rip-roaring Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 -- when local musicians could find steady employment entertaining departing and returning miners in countless Seattle bars and theaters -- Local 30 members were disgruntled that various theater owners resisted paying standard-scale wages. When the union called a formal strike, six theater owners held a secret meeting to plan their response. On February 6, 1898, they founded the Seattle Order of Good Things to maintain their advantage. Their collective response to the union was extremely hard-line: each owner fired the theater house band and replaced it with a single pianist.
Three weeks later, on March 1, 1898, NLM Local 30 was recast as the Musicians' Association of Seattle, American Federation of Musicians, Local 76, A.F. of L. In April the Seattle Order of Good Things name was changed to the Fraternal Order of Eagles, which would in time become the largest such group in the nation. Strife between venue management and musical artists would ebb and flow in future years, and unions would continue to play a role in bringing both sides to the negotiating table.
A-Y-P and the Arrival of Jazz
As the years passed, an increasing number of African Americans arrived in the Northwest, and among them were many musicians. By 1891 some of these had formed the Seattle Cornet Band, which played for Black church functions, picnics, and other events. Other early Black groups over the following decades included the Wang Doodle Orchestra, Miss Lillian Smith's Jazz Band, the Garfield Ramblers, and the Knights of Syncopation.
In the early 1900s, Powell S. Barnett (1883-1971), a sousaphone and tuba player who had performed with the "colored band" in the Cascade Mountain mining town of Roslyn, moved to Seattle (which then had more than 400 Black residents) and formed his own brass band. In 1908 or early 1909 Barnett took a keen interest in the city's planning for the upcoming Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P). The fact that Seattle was preparing to host a world's fair (which would draw 3.7 million visitors between June 1 and October 16, 1909) got him thinking about employment opportunities for his band:
"I went to the man in charge of music for the Fair Association. He told me that if I got the Negro band in the union they could play all year at the fair. But the Negro musicians wouldn't do anything about it ... . I encouraged them to join the union, but they were determined to create their own" (de Barros, 7).
And they did, but not in time to get any work at the exposition, although Barnett answered an advertisement for a band seeking musicians, was hired, and ended up playing tuba at A-Y-P. This led to an invitation to join the otherwise all-white Volunteers of America Band.
Although Blacks were left on the sidelines during the fair, one upside of this period was the fact that the exposition attracted a lot of newcomers to town, including a professional gambler and business entrepreneur named Russell "Noodles" Smith (d. 1942). He apparently did well and stuck around, becoming a kingpin of local Black nightlife. Smith owned hotels and in 1922 opened the Alhambra nightclub at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, which provided work opportunities for both local and touring bands. Among these were San Francisco's fabled jazz pioneers, Reb Spikes' So Different Orchestra, which included tenor saxophonist Gerald Wells (1887-1966). Wells remained in Seattle and eventually -- after the town's Black players were shunted aside again during the city's big Golden Potlatch Festivals of 1911 and 1912 -- played a key role in the formation of a "Negro Musicians' Union" (O'Connor).
Smith went on to open other Black-oriented nightclubs, including the Little Harlem Club (1900 block of 4th Avenue) and, within his Golden West hotel, the Ubangi nightclub, with African decor and lavish floorshows. Many other venues also offered work to Seattle's Black players, including the Black Elks Club (18th Avenue and E Madison Street); the Plantation (Bothell Highway); the Copper Kettle (21st Avenue & E. Madison Street); the Bungalow Dance Hall; the Nankin Cafe (1616 1/2 4th Avenue) where former-Wang Doodle Orchestra sax-man Frank D. Waldron (1890-1955) performed with the Odean Jazz Orchestra; the Entertainers Cabaret (1238 Main Street), where in August 1920 an as-yet-unheralded ragtime pianist named Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1890-1941), the self-proclaimed "Inventor of Jazz," drove crowds wild with his piano playing; and Doc Hamilton's Barbecue Pit (12th Avenue and Marion Street), where clarinetist and pianist Oscar Holden (1886-1969) -- who'd played on Mississippi River boats with Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) before arriving in Seattle with Morton back in 1919 -- drew crowds for years.
AFM Local 458/Local 493
As early as 1913, Powell Barnett had made outreach attempts to Local 76, but the best it would offer was a two-tiered, Jim Crow membership system in which Blacks would pay dues and have voting privileges but would not be allowed to hang out socially at the headquarters. Seattle's Black musicians weren't impressed, but Barnett forged ahead. After pointing out that Local 76's charter actually called for the membership of "all instrumental performers" (emphasis added) he was initiated on May 6, 1914, the first and only African American ever admitted to that union.
Among Seattle's early growing pains was the development of two main musical cultures existing in relative isolation from each other, one dominated by whites and the other by Blacks. But this situation was common all across America; indeed, the American Federation of Musicians had adopted racial segregation as official policy back in 1901. In Seattle, such segregation was essentially excused on the basis of a local urban myth, which had long asserted that a Seattle city ordinance outlawed racially mixed dancing events, and there was nothing much that musicians, club owners, or the two unions could do about it. In fact, the whole notion was nothing but "a cynical ruse on the part of ballroom operators to keep blacks out. No [such] law ever existed" (de Barros, 59).
Nevertheless, one result was the emergence of the issue of turf, especially after musicians' unions got involved in deciding who could perform music and where they could perform it. By 1918, AFM 76 had 550 members -- including Powell Barnett. August 9 of that year also finally saw the chartering of another Seattle musicians' union -- AFM Local 458, created with the permission of Local 76 and oriented toward African Americans. That is also about when the town's unofficial turf boundaries were being drawn. Local 76 insisted on controlling the lucrative theater and major hotel territory of the Central Business District (from Yesler Way in the south to Denny Way in the north), along with radio, orchestral, and public-parks jobs. That left the membership of Local 458 scuffling along, working the dives along Yesler Way and south to Weller Street, including the Jackson Street zone "where most of Seattle's black population lived due to restrictive covenants" (Keller, "Sweethearts of Jazz," 6). The zone included a music-rich strip of clubs and speakeasies reaching from 5th Avenue to 12th Avenue that eventually earned the popular name "Jackson Street Scene."
It was in 1921 that trouble erupted. Local 76, distressed that Black musicians were beginning to encroach on white musicians' turf by getting jobs at downtown venues, ousted Local 458 players and replaced them with white bands. In that same year, Powell Barnett was elected president of 458, where he served through 1923. In December 1921, Local 76 went on the warpath, attacking 458 for various work-rule infractions, turf incursions, acceptance of "illegal" tips from fans, and minor governance scandals. In January 1924, 76 petitioned the international union headquarters to revoke 458's charter, a request that was approved on April 22.
For nearly eight months Seattle's Black musicians had no union representation, and Local 76 thwarted their repeated attempts to reestablish one. But finally, on October 10, 1924, Local 76 relented. The new Local 493 received its charter on November 22, 1924, members formed their union on December 9, and Barnett was again elected to serve as president for the local's 35 members. The playing field had changed though, with the white union now insisting on some patronizing new rules, including a requirement that a Local 76 agent be in attendance at all future meetings of Local 493.
Within six months, Local 493's membership rose to 55, but the battles with Local 76 continued throughout the Roaring Twenties. In February 1929, 493's charter was again revoked, only to be restored the following month. Then, in 1931, seeking a less-contentious relationship, the members of Local 493 unsuccessfully petitioned for a merger with Local 76. They tried again in 1933 and in 1936. On March 12, 1936, Local 493's charter was once again revoked, then restored on September 9. Considering that during these years 493 held its meetings at 76's headquarters, although its members still could not socialize there, the tension in that building must have been thick. It is no wonder that Local 493's members eventually opted to stop meeting there and instead gathered at the home of then-president Gerald Wells at 401 19th Avenue E in Seattle.
The War Years
While the beginnings of what would ignite into World War II were stirring in Europe, the union battles in Seattle continued. Black community leaders -- including officers of Local 493 -- began petitioning the Seattle City Council to complain that various statutes on the books were limiting the ability of potential entrepreneurs to create venues in Black neighborhoods where members of the community could gather for entertainment. Indeed, the City did have a curious ordinance on the books that banned the establishment of dance halls south of Dearborn Street and east of 8th Avenue, and it had stymied businessmen who wanted to establish halls or nightclubs along the Black business strip on East Madison Street, where African American families were settling.
In 1940 word broke that Lionel Hampton's (1908-2002) famous band would be touring through the Northwest and playing the Trianon Ballroom at 218 Wall Street in Seattle, a venue that had always had a policy of racial segregation. Local African American fans of Hampton's band -- which included Seattle's own Evelyn Williamson as vocalist -- longed to attend the show and approached the ballroom's manager to request that the Trianon finally be opened to Blacks. The counteroffer was made that a local Black newspaper, the Northwest Enterprise, could sponsor a second night's show -- a "Jim Crow" night, for a Black audience.
The newspaper's editors balked; they were committed to battling racist policies in general. Gerald Wells, however, saw this as an opening for change, and he agreed to have Local 493 sponsor the show. Unfortunately, his good-faith gesture backfired when the Trianon subsequently instituted formalized "'Colored Folks' Monday-night dances (known pejoratively in the Black community as 'spook nights'), while continuing to bar Blacks during the rest of the week, thereby tightening racism's hold on the Seattle music business" (de Barros, 59). And for making that decision, Wells took considerable grief from the editors at the Northwest Enterprise.
The year 1941 saw Local 76 continuing to attack Local 493, so it is interesting that the two unions co-hosted the 46th Annual International Convention of the American Federation of Musicians, which was held that year at Seattle's grand Olympic Hotel. Meanwhile, one 493 member, pianist Ernie Lewis, had learned the union-biz ropes well enough to rise to the position of assistant to the AFM national president. It was from that perch -- and with the encouragement of Powell Barnett -- that Lewis was placed in charge of a new push to work with all Black locals nationwide in their efforts to end union segregation.
With the United States entry into World War II after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Seattle instantly shifted to a wartime footing. The next few years saw radical changes in the city's cultural and social landscapes. Many thousands of newcomers settled in Seattle to take advantage of the increased work opportunities, and musicians benefited from the resulting increase in nightlife action. Among the African American families that moved to Seattle in the 1940s were many with children who later emerged as music stars, including trumpeter Quincy "Quick" Jones, jazz diva Ernestine Anderson (1928-2016), Floyd Standifer (1929-2007), and keyboard whiz Dave Lewis (1938-1998). The war years also brought new musical energy to town with the 1943 arrival of the Black U.S. Naval Military Band from Illinois, which yielded a splinter jazz combo that worked off-hours as the Jive Bombers with Local 493 stalwart Al Hickey.
In 1946 -- with its dues coffers now relatively brimming from all the nightly action -- Local 493 moved its offices into the hall above Seattle's Black and Tan nightclub at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street. Meanwhile, bureaucrats at Local 76 had the gall to place that Black-owned room -- whose very name signaled its racially inclusive intentions -- on their list of "forbidden territories" for musicians. Gerald Wells (who served as 493's president through 1949) went before the board of 76 to object, and the listing was apparently dropped. But that ploy and a continuing string of other insults by Local 76 were damaging to any possible sense of brotherhood. Still, Local 493 made amalgamation overtures to 76, again unsuccessfully, in 1949. Meanwhile, leadership at 493 changed, with Emmett Lewis installed as president and the Jive Bombers' sax-man, William Funderberg, becoming the union's business agent.
It was probably during this era that Local 493's membership peaked. Among the most notable players that had (or would) serve in its ranks were pianists Palmer Johnson, Edythe Turnham, Evelyn (Bundy) Taylor, Al Pierre, LeEtta Sanders King, Phil Moore, Jimmy Rowles, Julian Henson, Derneice "Melody" Jones, Ray Charles, Merceedees Walton, Patricia Braxton, Len Brooks, Patti Bown, Ruby Bishop, and Overton Berry; saxophonists Frank Waldron, Earl Whaley, Joe Gauff, Jabo Ward, Terry Cruise, Joe Brazil, Roscoe Weathers, Frank Roberts, Vernon "Pops" Buford, and John Willis; trumpeters Herman Grimes, Quincy Jones, Leon Vaughn, Bob Russell, and Magie Shumate; guitarists Earl West, "Banjoski" Adams, Junior Raglin, Al Mitchell, Garcia McKee, Clarence Williams, and Milt Price; bassists Ernie Shepweller, Bob Marshall, Buddy Catlett, Bill Rinaldi, and Trafford Hubert; drummers Leonard Gayton, Tommy Adams, Vernon Brown, Charles Blackwell, Gerald Frank, Jimmie Rodgers, and Myrtle Francoise; vocalists Evelyn (Meyers) Williamson, Juanita Cruse, Gwendolyn Webb, and Beatrice "Bea" Smith; and bandleader Robert A. "Bumps" Blackwell.
In April 1951, Local 493 -- which by now included Asian, Filipino, Hawaiian, Latino, and even a few white players among its 83 members -- moved its headquarters again. This time the members purchased their own modest office building at 1319 E Jefferson Street, which served as both headquarters and a private nightclub, formally incorporated as the "Musicians' Blue Note Club, Inc." but soon known simply as the Blue Note. The club offered space for all-night jam sessions, a key factor in providing hands-on education for scores of up-and-coming players, and one which made Local 493 the antithesis of the relatively stodgy digs over at Local 76. A Seattle writer described it:
"Union hall, night spot, and social club wrapped into one, the Blue Note was a hub of fraternal camaraderie, hosting sessions on Friday and Saturday nights. Every member of 493 had a key to get in and was allowed one guest. Drinks were twenty-five cents, and there were no union agents around to stop the [otherwise forbidden and unpaid] jamming, because the club was the union" (de Barros, 168).
Wrote another: "This clubhouse-style setting, complete with bar and dance floor, became the go-to, after-hours spot for fabled jam sessions. ... [Here, locals] could learn their craft, trading riffs with touring greats… In a fascinating arrangement, the Blue Note was both an administrative union hall and a cultural center for bebop music" (Keller, "Sweethearts," 11).
Among the big-time players who popped in after their main gigs were Thad Jones (trumpet) from the Count Basie Orchestra; Ben Webster (sax), Johnny Hodges (sax), and Willie Smith (alto sax), from the Duke Ellington Orchestra; Kenny "Klook" Clarke (drums), Wardell Gray (tenor sax), Lee Konitz (alto sax), and Jean "Toots" Thielemans (guitar/harmonica); and several members of Spike Jones's band.
As time went on concert producers began finding it a bit easier to bring black musicians into some of Seattle's best venues, including the Civic Auditorium and the Metropolitan Theatre at 4th Avenue and University Street. It was at the latter in 1951 that one of the town's first racially mixed combos, the Cecil Young Quartet, played a gig -- one that happened to be recorded and released by the big-time, Cincinnati-based label King Records. Incidentally, Young's bassist, Trafford Hubert, was among a number of white jazz musicians -- including bassist Bill Rinaldi (the first to join, back in 1937), the Savoy Boys' pianist Ken Boas, and drummer Jan Kurtis Skugstad -- who were welcomed as members of Local 493. The year 1951 also saw 493, under new president Bob Marshall, produce an Orchestra Cavalcade benefit concert on May 29, which featured nine prominent bands at Eagles Hall's grand Senator Ballroom, to raise funds to help remodel the Blue Note.
In 1953, hopes rose when segregated locals 47 and 767 in Los Angeles (the latter of which included among its members Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Nat King Cole [1919-1965]) set an inspiring example by merging. In 1954 Barnett was sent as Local 493's delegate to a meeting in Chicago with Ernie Lewis. They developed a plan and Barnett returned home with a proposal that both Seattle locals form amalgamation committees to explore the issue and seek a merger vote by their respective memberships. Later that year, Powell Barnett, who "had retained dual membership in both locals and was a natural to help with the merger" (Keller, "Sweethearts," 12), contacted Local 76 to once again explore possibilities. Committees were established and engaged each other, but progress proved to be slow and negotiations dragged out for two long years.
The Civil Rights Era
Meanwhile, Elmer Gill (piano and vibraphone) and Al Larkins (bass) had formed an interracial trio with a white guitarist, Al Turay, and in August 1956 Gill "decided to challenge the whole rotten system of union segregation. The climate was ripe. Two years earlier, the U. S. Supreme Court had forcibly integrated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. People had watched televised reports of fire hoses beating back demonstrators" (de Barros, 175).
It was time to make their move: Gill's trio approached the management of downtown Seattle's New Washington Hotel with an offer to play its Brigadier Room -- the longtime solid turf of Local 76. The hotel manager balked at the thought of hiring a 493 band that would attract a Black clientele, and he got the hotel chain's board of directors in Los Angeles to weigh in. To everyone's surprise, the board voted yes, and simple as that, the Elmer Gill Trio caused the walls of segregation to begin tumbling down.
Another incident reveals more details behind the gradual end of segregation. Seattle's top young Black band in the late 1950s was the Dave Lewis Combo. Popular citywide for dances, the combo found itself getting invited to perform in "white areas," including Bellevue and the fraternities located just north of the University of Washington. The union bosses at Local 76 must have been growing frustrated with the situation, and things finally came to a head one night in 1956. Lewis's combo was booked at the premier north-end dancehall, Dick Parker's Ballroom at 17001 Aurora Avenue, an old roadhouse that had been a mainstay for Local 76 acts since 1930. After the dance was advertised, somebody tipped off the white union local, and it quickly leaned on Parker's to cancel the show. That was what caused Parker's to finally defy its longtime "understanding" with the union:
"Lewis himself personally recalled witnessing the hall's manager respond to this pressure. In a heated telephone call [the manager] informed those union agents that if they didn't back off it would be the end of any further Local 76 gigs there. Ever" (Blecha, "Lewis, Dave ... ").
The combo's dance went ahead, the world didn't stop turning, and the new Parker's policy opened the door for other Black bands to play there, including Billy Tolles and the Vibrators. Tolles had been playing sax since 1937; led one of Seattle's first swing bands, the Savoy Boys; and gigged with Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday (1915-1959), and Billy Eckstine (1914-1993). He might best be remembered for hosting Battles of the Bands events at Parker's beginning in 1956 and for his own Billy Tolles Rock 'n' Roll TV Show, which had a two-year run.
A More Perfect Union: AFM 76-493
Meanwhile, the two unions' negotiating committees finally submitted their signed "Proposal for Amalgamation" to the Local 76 board, which gave it a positive review at a general meeting on November 13, 1956. The effects were quick. The December issue of 76's Musicland newsletter implored its members:
"On December 11, let us give a resounding approval to the efforts of the two committees, to our own long history of tolerance among musicians everywhere, and to that precious principle: All men are created equal" (Foubert).
Emmett Lewis, Local 493's secretary-treasurer, skillfully helped orchestrate the key next steps, and wrote in Musicland that 493's members "feel that joining your local will benefit both unions as a group, our members and their families, and the community as a whole" (Lewis, "Message From ...").
At their December 11, 1956, meeting 76's members voted 232 to 128 for the merger, and 493's members followed with a unanimous "for" vote on December 15, 1956. Many more months of negotiations finally ironed out the last remaining wrinkles. In particular, a holding committee reviewed 493's finances and arranged to sell the Blue Note headquarters. History was made when Emmett Lewis deposited a check representing the collective work-dues funds of 493's 101 members with those of Local 76, and on January 14, 1958, Seattle finally had one integrated musicians' union, based out of 76's headquarters at 2620 3rd Avenue.
The following years presented challenges, as local social patterns still drove many venues to continue to give preference to hiring white musicians. "Many promises had been made about better conditions coming for all, but when the two groups finally amalgamated in 1958, economic payoffs eluded black musicians" (Keller, "Sweethearts," 12).
For example, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra didn't hire its first African American musician (bassist Bruce Lawrence) until 1968. But beyond that, plenty of Black musicians experienced a sort of bittersweet sense in watching their world -- Blue Note jam sessions, the hot local jazz scene in general, and brotherly camaraderie -- all begin to fade away. It was perhaps Floyd Standifer, jazzman and educator, who nailed the situation best:
"As long as there was a 493, there was a center. When 493 disappeared, it took away the focus for jazz. People began to spread out. Instead of having some place to go, where you could find all the musicians in town at any given time, there was no place for this sound to concentrate anywhere" (de Barros, 178).
And, indeed, Seattle's jazz scene gave way to a jazz-tinged rock 'n' roll scene of considerable vibrancy. But in time Seattle gained a newfound love of its musical history. The 1993 publication of Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros's watershed book Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle was an undeniably major factor in this reawakening. Indeed, only months later, in 1994, Local 76's name was officially changed to the Musicians' Association of Seattle, Local 76-493, in an effort to better reflect the contributions -- both musical and historical -- made by local players of all hues, 500 of whom are currently (2013) union members.