A look back at Seattle’s black musicians’ union
A new book about Seattle’s formerly segregated black musicians union, Local 493, adds some valuable new information to the field.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘The Blue Note: Seattle’s Black Musicians’ Union — A Pictorial History’
Our House Publishing, $24.95
Old photographs, brief chronology, thin and disjointed narrative threads — not much on which to build a book about music and race in Seattle. But David Keller manages to reveal some significant truths despite these limitations in “The Blue Note: Seattle’s Black Musicians’ Union — A Pictorial History.”
From 1918 to 1956, a union of black musicians operated in Seattle separately from whites. This single subject makes Keller’s book more manageable and approachable than Paul de Barros’ encyclopedic “Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle,” though not a substitute.
The book opens with Powell Barnett, the only black musician to join the all-white union in the early 1900s. Soon after, blacks formed their own union. To illustrate the dissonance between the two organizations, Keller includes a racist poem published in a 1922 white union newsletter. On another page, Keller explains that Duke Ellington rented Pullman train cars for Northwest tours so the band could avoid segregated hotels and restaurants in 1934. Another incident recalls how Lionel Hampton was refused service at a Portland hot dog stand despite his standing-room only show at the McElroy Ballroom. Seattle’s Floyd Standifer is quoted saying that members of the white union thought black beboppers “were playing wrong notes and were marginal musicians.”
Amid this conflict, Keller unearths what may be the roots of formal jazz education in America and its legacy in Seattle. In the 1940s, the U.S. Navy trained 5,000 black musicians at the Great Lakes Naval Facility near Chicago to form bands that would play at bases to raise morale. This is now considered the birth of jazz pedagogy. The head of the program was Len Bowden, who offered the first university accredited jazz ensemble at Alabama State Normal College starting in the 1920s. From the Great Lakes program, Al Hickey and John Willis were transferred to Seattle’s Sand Point Naval Air Station and formed the Jive Bombers big band while out of uniform.
One main duty of a union is to establish fair wages. The book includes a photograph of the union price list from around 1952. The wage for gigs less than four hours was $48. Consumer Price Index data puts that wage at $423 today. Many clubs these days pay for the band through a cover charge, which rarely, if ever, adds up to that much per person.
The final years of Seattle’s Black Musicians’ Union (1953-1956) orbited around 1319 E. Jefferson St. This building housed the administrative offices and served as a meeting place for musicians to jam, enjoy a cocktail and hang out. Dubbed “The Blue Note,” the space had a piano, drum set, stage and bar. Floor tiles formed a large treble clef. Famous visitors included Duke Ellington’s saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster.
Today, the hyphenated Musicians Association of Seattle Local 76-483 is located at 3209 Eastlake Ave. E., across the street from the Ship Canal Grill where multi-instrumentalist Jay Thomas convenes one of the best jam sessions in town.
Steve Griggs: email@example.com