Paying Their Dues

African-American musicians and the early musicians’ union

Volume 114, No. 2February, 2014

Jacob Goldberg

Two factors hampered black musicians from becoming professional musicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. First, black musicians did not have the same access to musical education and organization as white musicians. Though African Americans were admitted in small numbers to conservatories, they were barred from playing in many white orchestras and often refused lessons from white teachers.

“White musicians,” remembered the clarinetist Barney Bigard, “had a better schooling on their horns. The old white teachers wouldn’t teach Negroes.”

Black musicians were given no advertisements in musical journals, and they lacked access to networks that provided employment.

Second, and more importantly, the substance of professional music itself discriminated against black musicians. Into the 1910s, musicians defined professional music as European classical music. As historian Lawrence Levine has argued, the period marked the “sacralization” of European music among musicians and audiences and also a hardening of professional lines. Professional musicians, even if they performed popular music, were expected to play with European techniques, to read music, and to have some familiarity with the European repertoire. All else was “amateurism,” and “amateurism” meant bad taste. “The work of an amateur, the touch of the amateur, a mere amateur,” reported one newspaper, “these are different current expressions which all mean the same thing, bad work.” European classical music, like all musical genres, had racial and ethnic overtones. Even white American musicians sometimes struggled to prove that they could play Beethoven or Brahms with the authenticity of European performers. But racial stereotypes made it especially difficult for black musicians to become successful classical musicians. A black pianist, notes the protagonist in Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” “could never learn like other people, never acquired any finish. He was always a Negro prodigy who played barbarously…as piano playing, it was perhaps abominable.”

“People didn’t believe,” remembered the pianist Eubie Blake, “that black people could read music.” Assumed to be barbaric, wild, or unteachable, black musicians became professional classical performers in the smallest numbers.

The African American musicians who did join the musicians’ union, then, proved their professional abilities beyond the norm. They learned European classical music and popular music, and they had the business sense to develop a wide following. The man who broke the color line in the New York union seems a case in point. In 1886, Walter Craig applied and was accepted for membership in the Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union. Craig had grown up in a solidly middle class family from the North. He was born in Princeton, New Jersey and moved to New York City at an early age. He attended a private grammar school and excelled. He took up the violin, studied with a German composer and, before long, had achieved professional status as a concert violinist and orchestra leader. Craig played both classical and popular music. As a classical musician, he played in “highbrow” venues, performed European music, and gained the respect of music critics and musicians. Craig, wrote one contemporary critic, “is well known to New York audiences as a perfect master of his instrument. His performances of the ‘Fantasie of Faust’ and ‘De Beriot’s Seventh Air Vaire’ were marked by exquisite harmony, firm yet delicate.” As a popular musician, he found financial success. He led orchestras that performed at white society dances and even employed white musicians. “There was no segregation in New York so far as music and art were concerned,” said Tom Fletcher, himself a performer at the time. “With Craig as the leader an orchestra of 50 pieces was formed…All of the musicians with the exception of Craig and the other three mentioned were white.” Craig may have been the first and most successful black musician to gain a professional reputation, but, in the late 19th century, he was not the only one. William Tyers, William Carle and John Montgomery, all black classical musicians, all middle class, joined the Musicians Mutual Protective Union.

These men played at fancy hotels, at restaurants, clubs, and summer resorts. They played at Ivy League reunions and at vacation spas on the Jersey shore and in the Adirondacks. Wherever they played, though, these musicians blended their sounds into white bands and orchestras, playing popular music and light classical compositions, and they gained respect from white musicians. “Colored musicians were playing such a large part in their world of music, and blending their artistry so effectively with that of their white contemporaries,” said Tom Fletcher, “that they were finally accepted into membership in the Musicians’ Union, which was then Local 310 and is now Local 802.” Established as professionals, these elite musicians joined the union as individuals.

But while these select musicians “made it” among white audiences and mastered European music, a larger group of black New York musicians performed in quite a different style: the black vernacular. From the moment Africans arrived in the Americas, they brought music and developed it. Throughout slavery and long after it, music proved to be one of the most lasting African cultural heritages. African American folk music, notes one historian, “remained closer to the musical styles and performances of West Africa and the Afro-American music of the West Indies and South America than to the musical style of Western Europe.” In gospel choirs, in work gangs, in ring shouts, and as solo singers, black Americans developed this African music into a powerful artistic form. “The Negro folk-song – the rhythmic cry of the slave,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois in 1903, “stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.” “It remains,” he continued, “as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the great gift of the Negro people.” This ‘heritage’ existed practically everywhere that black workers lived. Popular conceptions of African American music have stereotyped black folk music as a Southern music, one that only after World War I made it north to New York City and its surroundings. But black workers sang the blues, a singular musical genre whose origins and development make up a long story in itself, just as surely in Northern cities as Southern fields even in the late nineteenth century. The piano player Willie “the Lion” Smith, for instance, recalled that he “first heard the blues sung while I was still a barefoot boy out of New Jersey” and on groups playing on barges in the Hudson River in the 1890s.

Whatever the richness of this vernacular music, New York’s first black professional musicians like Walter Craig often set themselves apart from black folk musicians more than in collaboration. Craig, himself, seems to have had practically no experience playing black vernacular music, and he was not alone. Into the 1910s, said the pianist James P. Johnson, “Blues had not come into popularity at that time – they weren’t known or sung by New York entertainers.” This avoidance of black folk music was not a passive or apolitical choice. Black musicians and, more broadly, the black middle class consciously and, sometimes, passionately rejected vernacular music. The violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, for instance, remembered his mother’s reaction at his playing vernacular music. Late one morning around 1898, he sat at the piano in his parent’s house and began “trying to learn to play my most Negroid song, ‘Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd?’” His mother was revolted. With tears streaming from her face, Cook’s mother, lamented, “Will, Will, I’ve sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician, and you return such a n—–!” She reflected the attitudes of many in the black middle class. “My mother,” remembered Cook, “was a graduate of Oberlin in the class of 1865 and thought that a Negro composer should write just like a white man. They all loved the Dunbar lyrics but weren’t ready for Negro songs.” For middle class African Americans, entrance into the American mainstream music scene and becoming professionals required separation from black folk musicians. Until around 1910, these musicians defined how black musicians became professionals and made up the union’s black membership.

African American professional musicians took pains to protect their status. In the 1900s and 1910s, black musical organizations proliferated in New York City. Some were informal, some formal. Some lasted only a short time, others remain in existence to this day. But most had a common goal: to ensure the respectability of black musicians and the music they played. In doing so, more often than not, they established a rigid line between musicians who played vernacular music and those who did not, and, just as surely, a line between which black musicians could join the New York union and which could not. At first, these groups developed informally, growing naturally out of musicians’ social interaction in select spaces. At the Marshall Hotel, for instance, black musicians made contacts, found employment, and, often, hoped to attract the interest and meet with established white performers. “A good many white actors and musicians,” noted the composer and writer James Weldon Johnson, “also frequented the Marshall, and it was no thing for some of the biggest Broadway stars to run up there for an evening.” Musicians at the Marshall used their social organization to advance their careers.

By the turn of the century, black musicians had begun to see these organizations as essential and make them formal. In 1904 a group of classical musicians organized the New Amsterdam Musical Association (NAMA) and received a charter from the state. It was a solidly middle-class organization. The meetings started with the Lord’s Prayer. The members hosted picnics. Like the Musicians’ Protective Union, the Association had high standards for black musicianship, and like the downtown union, the Association rejected black vernacular music as a professional music. To enter the union, each member paid a modest initiation fee, five dollars, and passed a test of musical proficiency. After observing one especially bad examination session, an officer, one Mr. Prime, said of the association, “This is the first time in 30 years that such an organization as this existed and it would be decidedly a backward step to let the barriers down and take in faluirs [sic].” The NAMA, insisted Prime, should distinguish between the professional and the non-professional and keep membership open only to the former. “The Town [New York City] is full of so called musicians,” he insisted, “let them keep their way and we ours.” The NAMA admitted only musicians who could read music and only musicians who played classical music. It rejected vernacular music or even popular music as professional music, and so, even as it promoted black musicians, in its early years, it discouraged the development of vernacular music.

In part, elite African American musicians rejected vernacular music in hopes of combating stereotypes and generally to uphold the “respectability of their race.” They became performers, said Tom Fletcher, “to make money to help educate our younger ones, and second, to try to break down the ill feeling that existed toward the colored people.” Much of this ill feeling permeated most attempts to turn black vernacular players into professionals. Up to the 1880s, black vernacular music only became commercial through minstrelsy, and even after its slow death, strong remnants of minstrel styles lingered in most attempts to create a black popular music. When black vernacular musicians began creating their own musical theater, much of it came straight out of minstrelsy. In 1898, Bob Cole and Billy Johnson premiered “A Trip to Coontown.” In 1903, Bert Williams and George Walker wrote and starred in “In Dahomey.” In 1906, Ernest Hogan wrote and played in “Rufus Rastus.” In these shows and in what came before, black performers drew heavily on stereotypes, on the efforts of white actors and performers to denigrate black people, and on self-deprecating, morbidly humorous exaggeration of black folk styles. They wore black face, used racist slurs, grinned and acted shiftless, and, often, appeared obsessed with food, especially watermelons, ham, or fried chicken. The most popular song to emerge out of these shows was Ernest Hogan’s “All Coon’s Look Alike to Me,” a tune Hogan lifted from Chicago barroom pianists and rewrote. Its success generated a slew of imitators. For a time, “coon” songs, ragtime music with offensive, minstrel lyrics, became the most popular form among many black musicians. “Coon” songs and blackface shows may have opened up the musical profession, but they horrified the black middle class.”It goes without saying that minstrels were a disreputable lot in the eyes of uppercrust Negroes,” said W.C. Handy, “but it was also true that the best composers, the singers, the musicians, the speakers, the stage performers – the minstrel shows got them all.”

But coupled with this criticism, black musicians perpetuated definitions of professional music as opposed to vernacular music out of a class anxiety. By the 1910s and 1920s, middle-class black New Yorkers, of any occupation, rejected association with black workers. “All Negroes are not alike,” said one middle-class black man in the 1910s, in words that echoed the New Amsterdam Musical Association’s insistence on “keeping their way.”

“There are various grades of colored people…We [the black middle class] are not to be judged by the street loungers and drunkards of our race.” Especially as black migrants began to move into the city and even innovate new music based on black folk forms, middle-class opposition to vernacular music hardened. Probably fearful of losing their own professional status or perhaps of reinforcing racist stereotypes, black musicians and critics made every effort to separate professional music from vernacular music.

In time, among some musicians, this attitude only intensified. For Lucien White, a columnist for the respectable black New York Age and a musician himself, New York’s black professional musicians lacked decorum and social grace. “The Negro musician,” he wrote in a statement tinged with class prejudice, “has never seemed to take his work seriously. He has been content to acquire certain digital mistakes along social lines. There would have been no mistaking liberty for license…resulting in the closing of doors to the artist because his actions as a man were not agreeable.” For White and for others, New York’s musicians had suffered a dramatic fall in social standing in the early 1920s. “The average Negro family,” wrote Willie Smith, “did not allow the blues, or even the raggedy music, played in their homes [in 1920].” It was, quite simply, unrespectable. “Many of the New York City colored folks,” he continued, “including quite a few musicians, did not go for the blues music.”

Of course, this movement against black vernacular music did not originate or even develop only among black people. It had roots and grew through prejudices of white musicians and critics. To them, black music was primitive, immoral, even dangerous for the musical profession. In 1921, William Mayers, a union official outside New York, stated this position most clearly. The practice of musicians who adopted black vernacular forms, he wrote, is “like a bunch of intoxicating clowns, indulging in all sorts of physical gyrations, making movements that took me back to 1893 when at the Chicago World Fair I saw in the Dahomeyan village on the ‘Midway’ a dance by about 40 African females clad mostly in a piece of coffee bagging…In the interest of conserving a little dignity for the musical profession, I would ask contractors to minimize what I believe will eventually prove a detriment to all of us, by instructing their players to at least refrain from the antics I have described.” Though Mayers wrote outside New York, this general sentiment probably permeated the country, and so, black professional musicians had good reason to be wary of popular music.

This article was excerpted with permission from a thesis written by Jacob Goldberg for Amherst College in 2008. The thesis is available as a book for purchase at