OLEAN – A talk on the history and impact of the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo by one of its key members was a highlight of this year’s June 19 celebrations at Olean.
The city’s 11th annual public Juneteenth celebration Saturday was a collaboration between Jamestown Community College and the African American Center for Cultural Development and was held for the first time at the JCC’s Cattaraugus County campus.
Dozens of attendees came to enjoy food, music, exhibits and personal connections to the black community. At the Cutco Theater, Danny Williams, Chairman of the Board of the Colored Musicians Club, gave his presentation on the history of African-American music in Buffalo.
“The Colored Musicians Club is a grassroots organization that is a holdover from the former American Federation of Musicians color union,” explained Williams, a longtime Buffalo resident who joined the club in 1982.
Williams, who plays trombone, baritone horn and cello, said he started his musical career in seventh grade and has been playing professionally since 1968.
At the turn of the 20th century, when Buffalo had a population nearly double what it is today, Williams said musicians of color received her official union designation — one of approximately 35 musicians’ unions black issued in the largest cities of the country. .
Although they had their own union, it was illegal for an American Federation union to displace another, said Williams, a retired police lieutenant from Buffalo. It was hard to find work with another white union already in Erie County, but once venues found out the colored union was playing jazz, getting hired became much easier. What they really needed was a place of their own.
“After playing in these nightclubs and places around town, we couldn’t go and order dinner with our wives or our dates,” he said. “We had to go out through the kitchen, and if we wanted to have dinner, we had to eat in the kitchen or get a box lunch.”
The union quickly bought their own club so they could have a place to socialize and play, and they opened it up to anyone who could play.
“The idea was if you can beat me, you get the spot,” he said. “From 1935 we had a jam session every Sunday night. We’ve been hosting a jam session every Sunday night for over 80 years. The pandemic has stopped us.
During those decades, everyone from Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne stopped by their club to play or sing in a jam session. Williams said everyone traveled by train in the 1920s and 1930s, and all trains going west from the northeast stopped at Buffalo, which at the time had the third-largest station in the country.
Very soon, two hotels specifically for black customers were created – one near the station and one near the club. Within a few years, several other clubs had sprung up along this two-mile stretch on Broadway and William Street. It became known as the Jazz Triangle of Western New York, Williams said.
“These old guys from 1917 were smart enough to realize that they had done nothing but act in the name of the union. They but act in the name of a social club called the Musicians Club,” a he explained, “We paid for the building in 1947 and have had it ever since.”
In addition to the club and union hall, the building had a credit union where club members could save their money and use it to buy houses, cars, and invest directly in their neighborhood. Williams said 150 members lived within a mile of the club, jam sessions were held in nearby parks, and parades ran up and down Broadway.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the club doesn’t need the union for the musicians to succeed and they don’t need the credit union to invest in the community. In their place in the building is a museum, which Williams says is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the top 10 preservation sites in New York City. The museum includes the history of black music in America from the African music slaves brought with them through blues and gospel to the music of today.
“The club itself now, the mission has changed. What we’re trying to do now is reach inner-city kids,” Williams said. “No matter your race, religion or sexual orientation, we try to introduce you to music.”
The club offers a number of free programs and festivals where the public has the opportunity to support its mission. A $2.95 million renovation and expansion of the club is set to begin later this year, adding more than 2,000 square feet of space to the existing building, a new handicap-accessible main entrance and elevator, and a reception/lobby area, Williams said.
The second floor will feature a prominent glass-walled rehearsal/flex space with two practice rooms and a lobby that connects to the existing building via an enclosed bridge, Williams said. The existing building will continue to house the museum on the first floor and the club/stage on the second floor.
“We try to bring the music downtown and then get that music out to the public,” he said. “As long as you can play, it doesn’t matter what you look like.”