The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s – the backdrop for today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day – was built on the struggles and advances of those who came before them.
The Colored Musicians Club, located downtown at 145 Broadway, between Elm Street and Michigan Avenue in the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, stands as a reminder of those forebears.
Black musicians in Buffalo early in the 20th century couldn’t join the whites-only musician’s union, and because of it were locked out of good-paying jobs. So in February 1917 – the year the United States entered World War I – they formed Local 533, American Federation of Musicians.
A social club opened upstairs the following year, eventually becoming chartered in 1934 as the first of what would become 32 “colored musicians clubs” in cities across the country. The history of the union and the club are told in a permanent, interactive exhibition on the Colored Musicians Club’s first floor, which the union vacated when it merged in January 1969 with the formerly segregated Local 43. It was installed by Hadley Exhibits in January 2013. Featured are the stories of the world-class musicians who were from Buffalo or frequently stopped in to perform while playing in the three dozen clubs that made up the traveling “chitlin circuit.”
“The museum is a place to enjoy an important slice of history of Buffalo and the nation,” said Danny Williams, a board member and volunteer curator. He spoke on a recent day while standing in front of a large photograph showing Dizzy Gillespie on piano, Wilbur Trammell (who later became a Buffalo City Court judge and candidate for mayor) on tenor saxophone and Elvin Shepherd clutching a trumpet. Visible in the doorway are a young Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
“We wanted to tell the story of the union, and the people who came here and played music,” Williams said. “A lot of them are Buffalonians, like Elvin Shepherd, and they stayed here. We wanted to tell their story, too. These folks influenced the country.”
A short video depicts the club’s history. There are short primers on the evolution of jazz, with film clips of luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and even dance, from the lindy hop and the cakewalk to the Charleston and tap.
An interactive bandstand allows the sounds of a trumpet, piano, trombone, standing bass, tenor saxophone, guitar, saxophone and drums to be heard alone or together.
Twenty-one jazz stars who were members of Local 533 are also featured prominently. Among the Buffalonians were Dodo Greene, the first female vocalist to sign with prestigious Blue Note Records; drummer Frankie Dunlop, who played behind Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington; and vocalist Doristine Tydus Blackwell, who is shown performing a beautiful rendition of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” on “The Original Amateur Hour” hosted by Ted Mack in August 1961.
Other powerhouse Buffalo musicians included are Shepherd, a band leader and tenor sax player; sax player and “smooth jazz” practitioner Grover Washington Jr.; and pianist Al Tinney.
Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Billie Eckstine, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington were among the jazz stars who over the decades passed through the club.
“If you were traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, you had to come through Buffalo, because the trains did,” Williams said. “And, of course, if you were playing here in Buffalo, the night before or the night after, you’d come to the club and you played. That’s the way it was.”
The museum is a dream come true – especially after the future of the club looked desperate a dozen years earlier.
Williams said the building in 2002 was in danger of being demolished. The walls were crumbling, water was leaking into the second floor and the city was warning the building might have to come down.
A board of directors was set up and a plan hatched to fix the building, Williams said. Eventually, funds were raised through government funds and private donations to put on a new roof, repoint the brick and install new windows.
Williams praised Hadley Exhibits’ work on the museum displays. “Hadley is off the charts,” he said. “The folks we worked with took the ideas wrapped around a concept, and came up with something that was flesh and blood, wood and mortar.”
One note that Williams said was off-key concerned the jukebox near the entrance, which features a 45 rpm record of the Beatles, and selections featuring British Invasion and other rock and pop groups. Williams said there are plans to reload the juke box with jazz singles in the future.
The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. For information, call 842-0969 or visit coloremusiciansclub.org.