One common thread running throughout Local 9-535’s history is the relentless press of change. Changes in the functioning of our union closely mirror changes in society as a whole. One of the most significant changes the Boston Musicians’ Association experienced was the merging of Local 9, the union serving white members, with Local 535, the union serving mostly black members.
As desegregation became the law of the land, Boston too was mandated to end segregation of the musicians’ unions. The merger discussions were protracted, tense, and divisive ending in 1970 with creation of Local 9-535. Following are descriptions of the halls operated by Local 535.
Being a union musician we enjoyed rehearsal rooms and to know that we were in a union. There was a lot of camaraderie with the men in those days. Of course, we had a hall on Lenox Street first, I didn’t remember that one so well, but on Columbus Avenue before we moved to Mass Avenue. Naturally the unions were two different locals, two different locals in them days and we were an all black local, although white could join it or we could join the white local. It wasn’t that we couldn’t. When the government came in and decided that it would be one local in a certain jurisdiction, we could understand that we had to merge, like Chicago…
I went back to New York, then I came back and joined Local 535, and we were on Columbus Avenue, I think over Charlie’s. And I was a leader of a band and I worked at Little Harlem… I had Slam Stewart, who’s a famous name… and the old secretary, that Sue-Ellen knew, he was a singer at the club, Clement Jackson. He played violin too. He was a union official for years. Oh sure, Clement Jackson was a bird on that [checking people’s union cards]. Everybody said make sure the card was paid up, ‘cause he’d get them off the bandstand. He very seldom came in where I worked. Everybody that belonged to the union wanted to be in the union…Du ring one time, I belonged to three locals; I belonged to 802, 535, and the New Bedford local…
Rehearsal up and downstairs. Several bands and groups rehearsed there. Real camaraderie, like you say. We always had a musicians’ hall to play in and rehearse. That’s where you met musicians and people and got gigs… We got all our own work, ’cause there was still plenty of places where we played, in and outside of Boston, all over the state. We were goin’ all over the state, all of New England was dance halls…
Mabel Robinson Simms
I couldn’t name how many rooms, but on the bottom floor, which was the basement floor, one, two – I think there was about two, about two big, big rooms – two big big rooms down there. Upstairs, the second floor where we met, I there was about three rooms on the second floor. Upstairs was a filing room, books… that’s as far as I went… I’m trying to think where the piano was… (was there almost always a rehearsal going on?) Yes, oh yes, I would look forward to going to the meeting. In fact, there weren’t too many [women] – I think I was one of the only women that attended the meetings… In the union hall on Mass Avenue, we could virtually go in there from dawn ’til midnight. In fact, there were times we were in there after 12 o’clock, a number of bands. We could always rehearse. They merged the union, got rid of the building on Mass Avenue, moved down to St. Botolph Street. I’m in there with a group rehearsing and we had to get out. Why? Because the union Secretary or Treasurer and a number of his cronies were going to play Parcheesi. We had to get out. And that’s when I got out of the union. I said, “This is ridiculous. A bunch of guys are gonna come in and play cards and we can’t play anymore?”
I came here in ’45 and first thing, ’cause I’m from North Carolina, I was surprised, although I knew Philadelphia had a black union, I was surprised there were separate unions in Boston. But after I found out, what existed was they had clubs where only black played and places where only white played. And that’s where you were. Certain houses, the Crawford House always had all black players. Only place that really had, as far as integration in this concern between bands, was Savoy. They would have Sabby Lewis and then they would bring in Bob Wilbur, or whatever. But it was a section thing. We couldn’t work Blimstrom’s, we knew that, they could never hire, or do the circus or anything. So it was more of less zoned off. Black people worked this club and white people worked that club. Simple as that.
As far as jobs, I thought that most of the jobs that were of a good nature, say even for jobs like maybe playing in the pit, or a class A club, weren’t given to the black musicians as much as they were given to the white musicians. And that was kind of upsetting to me. There was a lot of qualified musicians that could play despite they’re being a black musician.
To add to what Harold said, I don’t know how many guys here remember the meeting. We had a big meeting in regards to better jobs or doin’ the pit jobs and everything of that nature. Course he’s passed away, Jimmy Tyler, but I remember Jimmy Tyler and I thought the same thing. We were told at that meeting, the black men did not get a job at the Wilbur Theater or anything because you guys can’t read. But that wasn’t true. That was a very hot and heavy meeting I’ll never forget as long as I live… because it was entirely two separate unions with two different sets of rules. You may have been in Boston, but you might as well have been in Alabama, as far as I’m concerned. Members of 535 were not in favor of losing their local with its own identity, financial wherewithal, status, and power base. Ultimately the merging of the two locals in Boston resulted in many black musicians severing their union ties. Many black players continued to be excluded from desirable work sites such as theater and society work. Arguments were waged over who was capable of playing what kind of dates and who could read what kind of charts. After a short transition period, leadership roles did not fall to members of 535. These race inspired tensions were happening in the context of dramatic changes in all aspects of the General Business music profession. Perhaps the biggest changes for musicians of every race and/or ethnicity were those ushered in by the cultural shifts in popular tastes in the 1960’s – Rock and Roll and electronic instruments.