The Beat on the Street

Black History Month

Volume CVII, No. 2February, 2007

February is Black History Month. The musicians’ union used to have segregated locals and also a cabaret license system that was used to discriminate. But much progress has been made in society and also in the union. What improvements have you seen for black musicians over the course of your career?

I am an African-American musician and while I must agree with you that much progress has been made I must tell you that there is still a long way to go to right the wrongs of racism in this country. Although the union is no longer segregated and doesn’t have a cabaret system, black musicians are still invisible in the “legitimate” work force. Opportunities for black musicians to work harmoniously in good paying musical jobs are few!

–Akua Dixon

In 1965, when I joined the Baltimore Symphony, I was the first black musician in the orchestra’s history. I came from Philadelphia. There were two unions in Philadelphia at that time. When I joined the Baltimore Symphony, I was a transfer member of Local 40-541. I came to New York City in 1970 and became a member of Local 802. I was principal trumpet for 32 years. Today, most orchestras have black players. Here in New York we have Jerry Ashby and the great Billy Hunter, co-principal trumpet with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Times are changing.

–Wilmer Wise

I’m an African-American trumpet player, specializing in jazz and big bands. Unfortunately, progress for African-American musicians has long since slowed since I arrived in New York in 1981. While admittedly some very high-profile black musicians have gotten some great gigs, times are very hard indeed for the ordinary competent African-American musician. The New York music scene is still highly segregated (with some notable exceptions) especially in club date work and Broadway. I am also noticing the return of certain stereotypes used to justify not giving black musicians work, like we can’t read or play in tune or adequately play over changes or play lead. I wish I could be more optimistic, but my experiences tell a different story. Sadly, this counter-revolutionary trend is not limited to the field of music.

–Mark McGowan

Hotel accommodations and dining choices have improved 100 percent!

–David “Fathead” Newman

I am a black arranger and keyboardist. I do remember the days of the cabaret card — but it was used to make sure musicians were at least 16 years old. Over the past 30 years, black musicians and entertainers like myself have been able to play the same venues as our white counterparts and in many cases receive equal treatment from promoters and agents. Times have changed and hopefully more changes are on the way!

–Dennis Williams

As a white, male violinist, I think musicians have always been way ahead of the curve as far as being color blind and open minded. On the other hand I look around the orchestras I play in and it’s not unusual for there to be hardly any black people. There were very few black students when I was at Manhattan School of Music. Scholarships are increasingly rare and tuition has only gotten higher to the point that it’s becoming harder and harder for kids without rich parents to go to a top conservatory and get the best education so they can compete for the best jobs. Accordingly, only a small percentage of conservatory graduates are black, so what’s a contractor to do? As long as the black community is disproportionately afflicted with low incomes and substandard schools they are going to remain noticeably absent from symphony orchestras — a real irony given that classical musicians are among the least racist people I know.

–Gregor Kitzis

In response to your question about African-American musicians, it’s hard for me to really answer that. Mostly because I personally and professionally don’t care what ethnicity or religion a musician is. What does any of that have to do with the things that really count, like talent and skill?

–Christine Talbott Sutin

Most of my work is in the classical field. Great progress has been made to end discrimination in that area since the AFM union locals — besides merging (where there had been two locals) — have also insisted that symphonic auditions be held with musicians playing behind a screen. This has resulted not only in ending racial discrimination, but gender discrimination as well. Today, a qualified player, regardless of his or her race or ethnicity, and regardless of gender, has a fair shot at nailing the job, solely on the qualities of talent and skills.

–Abba Bogin

I believe you have noticed an improvement in the number of musicians of African American ancestry on the cover of the International Musician.

–Sam Folio
The writer is secretary-treasurer of the AFM;
his office produces the International Musician.

Sometimes I wonder how much progress has really been made. As a jazz musician, I find that the scene is still surprisingly segregated. I often find that either I’m in an all-white band, or I’m the only white guy in the band. (Certainly there are exceptions — the Mingus band, for instance.) What happened? Didn’t jazz supposedly lead the way with integration, back in the 30’s?

–Scott Robinson

I’m Armenian/Italian. Racism is at once a big psychological scar and the elephant in the room in American society. Until we’re willing to talk honestly about it, not only in its historical context but in its “in the street” manifestations, I’m not sure things will change. And I’m not sure things have changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Musicians — to our credit — may be more evolved in our thinking. We don’t care what color, language or religion someone is: if they’re playing some heavy music, we’re going to check them out and acknowledge their contribution to our art. However the institutions still have not evolved accordingly. How many African Americans or Latinos have Broadway chairs? What about orchestras? Hopefully in a few more generations, we’ll all be mixed and this foolishness will be a thing of the past.

–Barry Danielian

I am a white, German, Jewish, American, Buddhist human working almost exclusively on Broadway. I have — over the past 20 years — definitely watched a rapid increase in the hiring of minorities as well as women. Women are too unfortunately still a minority in the club date and Broadway field.

I currently sub on “The Color Purple” where it seems clear — and rightly so — that many African Americans are being employed. Because of this gig I began to observe when subbing other shows how few African Americans seem to be working on Broadway.

Still, New York has always had more diversity than other cities. I have played every state and spent three years working in Europe and Scandinavia. A much better representation of woman and ethnically mixed musicians exists here in the city.

I have played on the road with pickup orchestras and they are still dominated by white male musicians. I hope New York can influence the world by continuing to employ good musicians — period.

I have not experienced or observed discrimination. Still I feel these cultural imbalances that do exist should always be addressed and checked on. Also if people do not speak up against any injustice, they are simply enabling it to happen.

–Jon Berger

I am not convinced that dissolution of the black unions was a positive for black musicians, because the larger union took over all of the work. Down to the present day, areas of the business covered by union contracts (classical, Broadway, recording, club dates) have, at best, a token black and Latino presence. I have worked as a violinist in New York City for over 35 years, and been the only black musician in most of the orchestras where I played. I am currently the only black musician on the roster of the longest-running show in Broadway history. At “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has run for almost 20 years, even a black or Latino sub is extremely rare. I don’t mean to imply that my colleagues are discriminating; rather, I want to stress that progress requires a conscious effort.

–Gayle Dixon