In January 1928, black musicians sent a petition to the union’s governing board.
Its content remains unknown, but the board perused it, acknowledged the political activities of its “colored members” and, then, from all indications, never responded. No doubt black musicians voiced some of the same complaints that white musicians or, for that matter, all workers did: they too wanted jobs, shorter hours, and better pay. But black musicians probably also demanded specific redresses. They probably protested the failure of the union to employ more than one black delegate, the corruption of its officials, and the union’s apathy when club owners refused to hire black musicians. They probably protested the refusal of certain bands to hire black musicians and the decreased job opportunities they found for recording sessions.
And when the union proved intransigent to their demands, black musicians formed new organizations and established a base for continued agitation against the union administration. The Colored Artists Bureau, established in 1934, made contacts, generated jobs, and strove to keep black artists working. More importantly, the Rhythm Club of 168 West 132nd Street, established around 1930, emerged as the meeting place and safety net for newly arrived and established black musicians. It became, for all intents and purposes, the center of the black music community.
“As soon as you’d get up in the morning, and you want to go for socializing in the afternoon, you’d go to the Rhythm Club,” recalled the guitarist Lawrence Lucie. “It was the greatest musicians’ club in Harlem. All the musicians used to go there every day and exchange ideas and talk and get gigs. That was where you’d get your club dates.”
Before long, the club’s owner Bert Hall had become a leading activist among black musicians and a vocal presence at Local 802.
Hall had arrived in New York from Chicago in 1928. Born in Maryland in 1893, he learned the trombone and began a peripatetic career in the business. In Philadelphia, he led a group called Bert Hall and His Jungle Band. In Chicago, he played freelance jobs. But when he got to New York, at the outset of the Great Depression, he found work less reliable as a player than as a hustler. He worked as a gambler and as a booking agent until somehow gathering the funds to purchase a club underneath the Lafayette Theatre then called the Hoofers Club after the dancers who spent their after hours on its premises. He renamed it the Rhythm Club, and it quickly emerged as the first and most respected stop for many black musicians newly arrived in the city. As he assumed more power among black musicians, Hall began to take an active role in Local 802.
Around 1930, Hall had run unsuccessfully for the Local 802 governing board twice. (This was the predecessor to today’s executive board.) The first time he lost outright; the second time, though he won enough votes, members of the board refused to serve with him out of racial prejudice.
But Local 802 needed support from black musicians and needed someone willing or able to control the Harlem business or, at least, bringing the practice of “chiseling” (playing below union scale) under control. In 1931, Local 802 Chairman Edward Canavan employed Hall as business agent for the local, and Hall became the first African American ever to hold such a position. By October, he had proved his worth. Hall submitted reports on dancing schools in Harlem, made suggestions on how to improve working conditions, and brought delinquent employers to the attention of the local. “Bert,” said the guitarist Danny Barker, “introduced many reforms in Local 802 that were for the protection of its Negro members who, lots of times after working in clubs owned by racketeers, were doubtful of getting paid until the money was in their hands.”
But just as Hall began to bring reform, he died a sudden and untimely death. Sick for only one day, Hall, barely 40 years old, succumbed to a heart attack and left his work incomplete.
In his short time in the New York music scene, Hall initiated several important changes. With the Rhythm Club, he established a central, cohesive African American musicians’ organization – a forum in which black musicians could organize their complaints. As the first black business agent to the local, he combated racial prejudice in its administration and provided a model for black representation in the union.
Following Hall, a few committed black musicians played a more central role in the union. They allied themselves with an incoming administration and represented Harlem musicians. They would alert the governing board to problems in Harlem, make suggestions for how to improve jobs, and guide black musicians’ through the unions’ complicated loopholes. These men supported struggling black musicians and sustained the careers of those who flourished. But Hall provided the model and the precedent. After him, black musicians could not simply be ignored.
Reform movements gathered speed within the local, crossed ethnic and racial boundaries, and began to force the union to become a more democratic organization. It may be hard to believe now, but at the time, members of Local 802 weren’t allowed to elect their own representatives: the AFM appointed its governing board. As musicians became more disgruntled with their organization, they attacked this provision and sought control over their local. Given the crisis of the profession and the radicalized environment around the local, it was almost inevitable that some reform movement would develop.
Local autonomy emerged as the reformers’ central cause as a rift grew between the New York local and the rest of the country. While Local 802 musicians had an integrated membership, AFM unions outside New York uniformly opposed interracial cooperation and often acted in overtly racist ways. In 1932, the national body of the AFM stipulated that black locals could only exist as “subsidiary” locals. The Federation ruled that black and white musicians could only “mingle for professional purposes with consent of both locals” and that the white locals could bring black musicians up on trial. The Federation’s provision drew the attention and attacks of the NAACP, which called on every self-respecting musician to fight the AFM’s provision.
The NAACP had good reason. Most AFM locals drew a strict color line. Only one other AFM local besides Local 802, Detroit’s Local 5, had an integrated membership, and white locals outside of New York often forced black musicians off the job. In the summer of 1933, for instance, when the black Local 802 trombonist Clyde Bernhardt tried to play a job with a black band in Atlantic City, white union delegates forced him out. “On the first day, the union delegate came in and gave Tebbet [the bandleader] a bad time,” remembered Bernhardt. “Didn’t want no black band in Convention Hall, he said. The union was all-white, the management was white, the production was white, and the walkers [patrons] didn’t take to blacks walking alongside of them, either. So, I was not surprised.” For black musicians to gain some authority in New York, then, they would need more separation from the Federation.
Facing the deepening crisis of the Great Depression, all members – white and black – demanded some change. Calls for autonomy and, with it, overarching reform of the union spread throughout the membership. In April 1932, over 2,000 members signed a petition to discuss local autonomy at an open meeting. In May, 100 musicians staged a musical protest to give Local 802’s delegates to the annual AFM convention a surely politicized and probably intimidating send-off. In October, 274 musicians sent a petition requesting a reduction in price scales. In December, members organized the “musicians’ welfare league,” probably an organization aiming to provide more unemployment relief.
Through these efforts, shortly after Bert Hall’s death in 1932, musicians opened several positions on the local’s governing board and trial board to a democratic process. Candidates now competed for six governing board positions, for the nine trial board positions, and for representation as delegates to the AFM and the Central Trades and Labor Council. Though the Federation still appointed Local 802 chairman and many on the board, a number of reformist political parties sprang up within the union, and, importantly, campaigned across ethnic lines.
At first, the most aggressive and successful of these parties was the Original Ticket or the Original Yellow Ticket. Their leader was a longtime Jewish member named Louis Weissman, and their platform focused on the continued push for local autonomy. Weissman’s group ran against two other parties: a conservative party whose name remains unknown and a more radical group called the Blue Ticket. But Weissman was the first to actively seek out black members’ support. On a Monday night at 2:30 a.m. in December of 1932, Weissman convened a campaign rally at a Harlem venue, Carey’s Democratic Club, enlisted the support of the black press, and put the ragtime composer Joe Jordan on his ticket. In the winter election, Jordan became the first black member ever elected to a union leadership position. From his election onward, white musicians seeking to change the administration made alliances with black musicians and included them as representatives.
As a result, black musicians had their first serious chance to reform the union from within. As a trial board member, Jordan was expected to judge disputes between sidemen and leaders. He went far beyond his duty. For the year 1933, Joe Jordan became Local 802 in Harlem. He contacted employers and set up meetings with Local 802 officers. He asked about conditions, learned about agreements and helped individual members, like the singer Adelaide Hall, receive permission from the union to work. By July, he had devised a plan to increase employment. Black house bands from Washington D.C., he found, would play at the Harlem Opera House and leave the Howard Theatre, in Washington, either unoccupied or with Washington musicians. Jordan arranged for the Howard to employ New York musicians when the Howard musicians came to New York. And then he considered pushing it further, employing New York musicians in Philadelphia when Philadelphia musicians came to New York. The plan, however effective or not, demonstrated the importance of black musicians’ networks outside the city to its black musician leaders inside of it. Jordan could never have arrived at such an idea or made such a compromise without communication and support from black AFM locals in Washington and elsewhere.
But whatever Jordan’s efforts, the Yellow Ticket administration had little success in gaining autonomy. In June 1933, several delegates from Weissman’s administration petitioned the Federation for self-governance of the local. The Federation roundly dismissed their appeal, claiming that the local had functioned well enough without self-government, and that it would descend into “destructive factionalism” and “violations of the laws of the Federation.” And Weisman returned to New York to face an increasingly political membership.
After the 1932 election, agitation for autonomy and reform grew. The men who had run on the Blue Ticket began an aggressive campaign to politicize the membership and make more militant calls for autonomy. A group of these musicians called “the Committee of Fifteen” took over the insurrection and radicalized its demands. They called for unemployment insurance from the union as well as autonomy and an end to corruption. Overwhelmingly, they drew support from leftist political groups in New York. The dissenters, wrote trumpeter Murray Rothstein, himself an activist years later, “had help from other trade unions, labor lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even the Socialist Party.”
The Committee of Fifteen represented a broad spectrum of musicians, including Bill Conway, an African American. Conway had forged a career as part of the now mostly forgotten “Conway Brothers Radio Team,” but he had risen in black musical circles at the Rhythm Club, where he served as its main booking agent. He was, so far as Local 802 was concerned, Bert Hall’s chosen replacement and in allying himself with the Committee of Fifteen would emerge as the first black executive board member in the local’s history. He joined with musicians of wide experiences. The oldest was the violinist Henri Conrad, born in 1870, who had served as president of the MMPU, the predecessor to Local 802. The most vocal was William Feinberg, who would later serve as secretary for many years. Some may have had ties to the Communist Party. They hired Joseph Brodsky, a Communist lawyer, who would serve on the team that defended the Scottsboro Boys several years later, and they may have printed some of their leaflets on Communist stationery. But whatever their true political beliefs – and probably they ranged from the moderately leftist to the radical – the Committee of Fifteen worked for autonomy and reform almost tirelessly.
They built support through most of the membership. In April 1933, a membership meeting passed a resolution calling for self-government. The members argued on grounds of power, of precedent and internal grievance. They noted that Local 802 made up 15 percent of the AFM. Every other local had the right to self-government through election of officers. Since New York musicians lacked such a right, the union had ceased to function effectively. Thus, “we, the members of Local 802,” they said, “protest against the present form of government of this Local and demand the absolute right of Local Autonomy now enjoyed by every other Local of the A.F. of M.” In response, the Federation made a small concessions. It allowed the local to hold monthly rather than quarterly membership meetings, a change that only fueled the insurrection.
At the monthly meeting in February 1934, the Committee of Fifteen managed to push through a resolution calling for a secret vote to determine whether members favored autonomy or opposed it. On March 12, the administration tallied the vote and found the response near unanimous. Of 3,855 who voted, 3,728 voted for autonomy and only 127 against it. The Committee of Fifteen pushed forward. On March 19, the membership passed another resolution to elect a Committee of Eleven to draft revised bylaws for the local that would ensure self-governance and elect another committee, also of eleven, to make plans for free elections to the governing board positions (then appointed by the AFM) and for the secretary, treasurer and president of the local. The Committee of Fifteen almost all won election to these committees. Conrad and Feinberg won seats on the bylaws committee. Conaway was elected to the election committee. A special membership meeting was scheduled for April 2 for members to ratify the new bylaws. The election was planned for April 13.
The AFM administration resisted. On March 28, the Federation refused to allow the meeting to take place and threatened the local with expulsion. If the April 2 meeting went ahead, the Federation threatened to revoke the local’s charter, much as it had done in 1921. When the Committee of Fifteen tried to organize the meetings without the consent of the AFM administration, the AFM decided to expel the 15 musicians from the local. The 15 brought a lawsuit to the Bronx Supreme Court and before Justice Ernest Hammer. Hammer proved a liberal ally. In his decision, he defended the activities of the 15, reinstated their position in the union, and called for labor solidarity. It was time, he wrote in his decision, for “workingmen and labor unions to hold close their ranks in these trying days of depression and labor difficulty…the knowledge of the present lack of employment and the low state of the funds of workers should be to union tribunals a guiding influence to leniency rather than severity in decision and sentence.”
Beaten in the vote of the membership and in the courts, the Federation had little option but to accede to demands for autonomy. At the annual convention in June 1934, the Federation at last granted self government to Local 802. It was not carte blanche. The Federation reserved the right to appoint its chairman for another two years. The first election for union president would come only in 1936. In a stab at the Committee of Fifteen, the Federation protested the “un-American communistic propaganda among its members” and put in a provision that the local would need to vote as to whether it approved of “communistic agitation within the union or that communists be members of the union.” But, in most ways, the membership and the Committee of Fifteen had won an important political battle against the administration of the Federation. Members had forged a coalition across ethnic and racial lines to take control over their union. They took their first efforts to address the crisis engulfing their industry, and they brought their first democratically elected administration into office.
Immediately, the character of Local 802 changed in two ways. First, the local became more politicized. It called for members to be more involved and more committed.
In January 1935, Allegro exhorted: “Brother Members: You now have the opportunity to create and regulate the policies of your Local. This right was achieved after a long and bitter struggle. Newly won rights bring new responsibilities….Your greatest safeguard and your greatest strength is your voice and your vote at monthly membership meetings…Attend the MONTHLY MEETINGS of your local.”
Local 802 members also became involved with politics outside of the limited concerns of its own. The older leadership had pleaded strict political neutrality. “As long as we are members of 802,” said Louis Weissman, “absolutely no political organization or anybody is going to inject politics into this organization, either Democrats or Republicans bringing in an outside group.”
But the group of 15 seemed to take clear political sides. They supported Franklin Roosevelt, drew members’ attention to broader political issues, and supported and even ran candidates for civic office.
But perhaps more importantly, the new leadership imbued the local with an energy and effectiveness it had not seen since before the 1920s. The leaders pledged to stop kickbacks. They campaigned against chiseling. They converted Allegro from a dry, slim fact sheet, into an effective voice. They editorialized and advertised, gave accounts of their actions, and made connections with other activists throughout the city. And, for the first time in over a decade, Local 802 became truly accountable to its membership and committed to the musicians’ cause.
For African American musicians, the fight for autonomy cemented their place in the local and its administration. When the local had undergone political changes before – when it had joined the Federation in 1902, when it became Local 802 in 1921 – black musicians had been at its periphery. When the local gained autonomy on Dec. 20, 1934, they joined in the movement at its center. Members elected Bill Conaway as the first black executive board member. The new, interracial administration appointed two black business agents: a saxophonist named Ralph Redmond, and a former bandleader named Jimmy “Peekaboo” Davis. And within the year, the administration began lending support to Harlem community organizations. In August 1935, the Harlem Labor Committee asked the local to donate money and members to its relief fund. The local bought five tickets for a relief raffle and gave them to several black members. It was a small act at the time but a harbinger of things to come.
This article was condensed and edited from a thesis written by Jacob Goldberg for Amherst College in 2008, entitled “Swingin’ the Color Line: African-American Musicians and the Formation of Local 802.” The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.