The Social Stigma of the “Musician” Class

Philadelphia’s Black Musicians’ Union, Local 274 PART I/IV

Philly Jazz: An Overview to the Founding of Musicians’ Protective Union Local 274: A four part series 

Psalm 137:1-4 

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.  For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song: and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? 

The city of Philadelphia, known as a cradle of jazz, has a rich and significant jazz history that goes back much further than most people realize. In the order to understand the emergence of jazz in the City of Philadelphia one must begin in the nineteenth century and trace black musical organization into the early twentieth century. During the 1800’s, musicians, both Black and white, often lived in poverty and were looked upon as an inferior social class. This socio-economic reality increased competition among Black and white musicians. Practices of racial discrimination were used by white musicians to eliminate competition. However, some early Black musicians were able to overcome racial prejudice and became prominent in the music profession. As early as 1818, there was a noted all-Negro marching band led by Matt Black. Francis “Frank” Johnson (l792-l884), one of its members, rose to prominence around l8l5 as a band leader and composer. Johnson began his career as a trumpet player and later performed on the Kent bugle. He was considered as good as Willis, the leader of the band at the West Point Military Academy, on trumpet. His band, primarily woodwinds, became renowned in upper-class circles during the l820’s and l830’s. Louis C. Madeira noted of Johnson, “In spite of race prejudice, Johnson managed, by musical talent and natural ability, together with a strong personal tact, to make himself a notability in his line….He could turn the most melancholy refrain into a cotillion.” Based on Madeira’s research, it appears that Johnson experienced “race prejudice” but more importantly was performing improvisation.

African Americans experienced patterns of discrimination in the music profession into the twentieth century. When Philadelphia Musical Society, Local 77, American Federation of Musicians was founded in 1898, it did not admit Black musicians. Segregation was a problem in Philadelphia during the l920’s in the music industry. For example, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (P.R.T.) Company had two bands, one black and one white. The fifty-piece Black brass band led by Fred D. Griffin was called the “Merry Makers.” The fifty-piece white brass band was called the “Concert Band.”  Violinist Owen Baylor stated that “…John Wanamaker’s had several orchestras and groups that performed operas – black and white. Segregation was the same as in the South.”   

Music venues also reflected segregation. For example, Mrs. Feigal owned a dance hall at l9th and Montgomery Avenue. When Blacks had affairs at her establishment, the name “Shadowland” appeared on the advertisements. When Whites had affairs at the same hall, the name was changed to “Danceland.” Black musicians’ chances of being hired for the choice jobs in the music profession were negatively impacted by segregation. They were barred from playing in certain districts in the city, for example, Center City along Chestnut Street and Walnut Street.  The Cafe Tea Garden on Chestnut Street was one such establishment in “forbidden territory” where Black musicians were not hired. Exceptions to these restrictions were the bookings of renowned Black musicians, who travelled to the city for brief engagements and were large crowd drawers. For the most part, local Black musicians in Philadelphia were excluded from this category of performance.   

In an effort to break down the barriers of racial discrimination and alleviate some of the hardships that Black musicians encountered, Local Branch No. 59l, of the American Federation of Musicians, located at 1441 Carpenter Street, was organized in 1916 to protect Black musicians. Its first annual concert and reception was held on May 26, 1917 at Waltz Dream Hall where tenor Sterling Ray, soprano Mayme Fletcher, violist Joshua Saddler and the Charles Taylor Jazz Band performed. In the early 1920’s it was advertised as a union “formed for the purpose to bring the Negro musicians of the city more closely together and to form a uniform rate of pay to the musicians and for the mutual benefit of musicians.” Black Musicians’ Union Local 591, AFM was organized as a subsidiary local of White Local 77. Philadelphia bassist, Curtis E. Wilder, born November 23, 1900, joined Local 591 after he was recommended to join the union by Fred D. Griffin in 1926. Local 591 had an ephemeral existence: its charter was cancelled sometime in the early 1930’s. 

Read Part II | Read Part III | Read Part IV

Dr. Diane D. Turner is Curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries. Dr. Turner holds three Temple University degrees.  Her areas of specialization and research include African American Labor, Cultural and Social History, Philadelphia Jazz History, Independent Black Filmmakers, Oral History and Public History.  Her dissertation is entitled Organizing and Improvising: A History of Philadelphia’s Black Musicians’ Protective Union Local 274, American Federation of Musician.  She has taught African-American history at the university level including Brown University, Northeastern University, Rowan University, University of South Florida (Tampa, FL) and other institutions.  She has authored My Name is Oney Judge (2010), Feeding the Soul: Black Music, Black Thought (2011) and Our Grand Pop is a Montford Point Marine (2018), co-authored with her father, Corporal Thomas S. Turner Sr.  Her writings appear in anthologies and scholarly journals.  She serves as a consultant on a number of advisory boards and committees such as Bethel Burial Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee, Third World Press Foundation, Scribe Video’s Precious Places and others.  She is president of the Montford Point Marines Association, Philadelphia Chapter #1 Auxiliary.  Her current book projects document Philadelphia jazz history.

A footnoted version is available here

This is part one of a four part series.

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