Local 802 during the swing era

Volume 117, No. 2February, 2017

Jacob Goldberg

The ten-year period from 1936 to 1946 marked the largest surge forward in the American labor movement, a Renaissance of American popular culture, and a leftward shift in the political culture of the nation. It also marked a heyday for Local 802. The union expanded in size and scope. The membership increased to over 20,000, and the union’s control over public performance of music reached a zenith. In 1939, for instance, the union had become so powerful that a boy scout who played a few bugle calls on a radio station had to contact the union for permission to play without pay.

As the union expanded, so too did the place of African American musicians within it. About a month before the boy scout’s appearance on the radio, the union’s administration released a statement expressing its commitment towards ending racial discrimination: “The administration appeals for complete tolerance and equal treatment of all members of our Local, whatever their race, their color, their religion, their sex, or their political opinion…today as never before we must expose and resist every attempt to inject bigotry and race discrimination into our ranks.” Local 802 protected the jobs of black members within its ranks, allied itself and lent support to black freedom struggles developing in New York City and the nation at large, and spewed forth a rhetoric of anti-racism – at once defining itself as an organization that drew no color line and mounting a propaganda campaign to end racism at every juncture.

What had changed? What pushed black musicians’ concerns from the periphery of the union in the 1920s to the center in the 1930s? In part, cultural, political, and social developments of the era directly impacted Local 802. With the emergence of swing music, black musicians became more respected in the profession. Changes in government brought new power to the local. The labor movement became more pluralistic, and community and labor leaders in Harlem began to make alliances with Local 802 and support its black membership. But more importantly, black musicians expanded their own activism from the roots laid by James Europe, Bert Hall, and others into consistent agitation for their rights within the local. In this sense, then, the period marked a culmination of black musicians’ efforts in the previous decades. Black musicians had established themselves as professionals, had forced the union to acknowledge black music as professional music, and had allied themselves with insurgent groups. When the local committed itself firmly to a civil rights agenda during the swing era, it was a change chiefly in degree, not direction: the result of expanding cooperation and longstanding agitation.

The content of popular music shifted in the late 1930s. Historians typically date the beginning of the swing era to Benny Goodman’s successful concert at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August of 1935, and for the next ten years, Goodman, a white clarinet player from Chicago, emerged as the most popular of American bandleaders. There was little new about Goodman’s music. He played the same arrangements and styles that Fletcher Henderson had premiered almost ten years before. In fact, Goodman employed Henderson as an arranger and sometimes as a pianist. But through Goodman’s polished, white image, the emergence of a powerful youth culture, and some undefined national yearning for the optimistic, the same music, popular under Henderson, became almost pervasive.  Swing musicians played at college dances, on the radio, and in revitalized dance halls throughout the country. Bands sprouted up, gave back employment to jazz musicians, and toured the country. And importantly, swing integrated American audiences and bands. Swing transcended ethnic and racial boundaries. Black and white audiences patronized the music and often did so in integrated venues. Black musicians and white musicians played in the same swing style, and sometimes they played in racially integrated bands.

With the rise of swing music, the composition of the union changed, and swing band musicians became its most numerous and vocal members. “I can well remember the time when no official of the Musicians’ Union concerned himself with the problems of members playing dance music for a livelihood,” noted William Feinberg, the local’s secretary, in 1940. “Such a period is a far cry from our present situation…the great bulk of our members are today making a livelihood in the dance music field.”  The shift in composition and the pluralism that swing seemed to represent intensified the previous decades’ developments. New York musicians had been creating an integrated sound since the early 1920s. New York union musicians had made cross ethnic and racial alliances after 1930. And all musicians, unlike unskilled workers, have always shared a common ground in their profession – in their highly skilled and often idiosyncratic dedication to their art. But swing music made cross-racial unity a dominant theme.

But even in the swing era, African American musicians never entirely eliminated discrimination in the music industry or even in the union itself. Black musicians fought for several more decades to win integration into white Broadway pit bands. Many black musicians remained exploited by club owners and booking agents, by leaders and record companies. Many found it difficult to get the highest paying employment, in theatre pits, hotels, and radio stations, and they found the union insensitive to their exclusion. Some still perceived the union as the corrupt organization it had been in the early 1930s. But, by any measure, black musicians of the swing era took their place in Local 802. They became a more important part of the membership and pushed the union to respond to their concerns.

It might be tempting to see this change as just that of the leadership or only a result of the cultural and political world of the swing era. But many black musicians had long agitated for increased representation in the union, and they continued to do so during the swing era. The popularity of swing, the progressive politics of the leadership, and reforms in government that brought more power to the union magnified this activism, bringing the political struggles of black musicians to wider attention and fueling further action. And in doing so, these factors allowed black musicians to more fully assert their place in Local 802 and more successfully demand it give them their due. Having become professionals, black musicians became full members.

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 thesis is available as a book for purchase at