by Kevin Amos
Former members of Black Musicians Union 471 gathered with colleagues from Buffalo and Philadelphia to celebrate a historical marker placement for one of the most influential Black music collectives in the world.
|THE BAND’S ALL HERE—Members of the Black Musicians Union 471. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)
The organization spawned the careers of George Benson and Jimmy Ponder as young musicians and joined the legacy of Pittsburgh’s contribution to jazz and other genres of what some people call Great Black Music. This happened at a time before separate was equal from the early part of the 20th century until integration in the early 60’s supposedly leveled the playing field.
Famous members of Local 471 included Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Strayhorn, Ray Brown and Ahmad Jamal. They were part of a distinguished group of players who went on to become international performers and great influences on the development of jazz throughout the latter part of the 20th century. These musicians and the union’s venue, the Musicians Club, were at the heart of a rich culture that developed in the lower Hill District.
The historical marker ceremony held on Crawford Street near the former location of the Musicians Club was an event filled with emotional highs. The installation ceremony also honored recently deceased AAJPSP president, Charles “Chuck” Austin as his daughter talked about her father’s dedication to see the marker project come to fruition. Other speakers during the ceremony were: Pennsylvania First Lady Susan Corbett; The Honorable J. Warren Watson; The Honorable Jim Ferlo; Rosemary Trump, president of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society; a representative for Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle; Jack Shea, president of Allegheny County Labor Council AFL-CIO; George Clewer the president and secretary of Musicians Local 60-471 AFM; and David Grinnell, reference archivist from the University of Pittsburgh.
On various panels held for two days, members George Duke Spaulding, the Honorable J. Warren Watson and Cecil Brooks II reflected on the good, bad and not so glamorous past of this prestigious union. Joined in the conversation were Philadelphia Clef Club members Lovett Hines, jazz ensemble director and Donald Gardner, managing director.
In addition, George Scott the president of the Colored Musicians Club, Buffalo and George Arthur, Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, Inc. joined moderator famed jazz journalist/broadcaster/author, Willard Jenkins and respondent professor of history Johnathan White of Penn State University.
Lively discussion took place on three topics, “Segregated Musicians’ Unions: Significance, Survival and Impact,” “The 471 Experience: Dialogue and Oral History,” and “Black Musicians Unions: Moving the Legacy Forward, with audience members giving their insight and providing thought provoking questions.
The African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh is an outgrowth of the realization that a great deal of the rich cultural contributions made in the field of jazz originated from musicians who were born, raised, are living or have lived in Pittsburgh.
AAJPSP is dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and dissemination of the history and accomplishments of Local 471 and jazz and blues musicians from Pittsburgh. AAJPSP seeks to present programming that creates an appreciation for the African-American contribution to America’s original art form by exploring the artistry, personal stories and experiences of the musicians who helped develop the jazz scene.
This program was supported, in part, by the Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
To find out more about the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh and Black Musicians Local 471 go to: http://blackjazzpittsburgh.org, http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=56705, or http://www.library.pitt.edu/ labor_legacy/MusiciansHistory471.htm.