On April 1, 1970, the separate Boston locals for Black and white musicians in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) merged to form Local 9-535 of the Boston Musicians’ Association. It marked the end of a long process.
The story is a product of its times. In the early and middle years of the last century, numerous cities had separate AFM locals for Blacks and whites. In Boston, whites joined Local 9, while blacks joined Local 535. (New York and Detroit, in contrast, had a single integrated local.) “It’s still beyond my limited understanding why Boston, or any other city, for that matter, requires two locals—one for whites, the other for Negroes. Music is supposed to be the most democratic of the arts: what excuse, then, is there for segregation in that realm?” So wondered Nat Hentoff in his Counterpoint newsletter in January 1947. Nonetheless, the locals remained separate for another 23 years.
The work split along predictable lines. In general, the Local 535 musicians filled the nightclub jobs in the South End and downtown, including in most of the jazz clubs, through the 1950s. The Local 9 musicians worked in the hotel dance bands, studio orchestras, and theater pits. Local 9 also represented members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and other classical ensembles. It’s unclear to me how this patchwork of jurisdictions was defined and enforced.
Apologists explained this division of labor by saying that although Black musicians could improvise, they couldn’t read well enough to handle studio or theater work. A stereotype if there ever was one, but apparently it was enough to prevent Black musicians from getting auditions. In truth, it was more about who controlled the jobs, rather than who filled them. It was a way to maintain the status quo.
Merging the Segregated Locals
There were state laws that prohibited race-based discrimination in unions, but Boston’s segregated locals were able to dodge them by allowing members of the “other” race to join whichever local they chose. There were always a few musicians who had cards from the “other” local—Black classical players in Local 9, white jazz players in Local 535.
As the nation’s views on race changed, unions moved to end their discriminatory practices. The AFL-CIO (the AFM is an affiliate of it) banned segregated locals outright. The AFM, in turn, ordered those cities with separate locals to undertake mergers. City by city, new amalgamated locals emerged, often with hyphenated names, like 40-543 in Baltimore and 60-471 in Pittsburgh. Chicago proved to be especially contentious, but Local 10-208 finally emerged in 1966. That left Boston as the last major music market with segregated locals.
In late 1968, the AFM ordered Locals 9 and 535 to merge. They assigned Hal Davis, who had worked on the Chicago merger (and would later become AFM president), to oversee the negotiations. What should have been a three-month process dragged on for over a year. Finally, on April 1, 1970, the locals announced their merger. George Harris, leader of a popular pre-war dance band and president of Local 9, became president of the new local 9-535. Pianist Charlie Cox, as First Administrative Vice President, was the highest-ranking former 535 member in the new organization. The first meeting of the executive board of AFM Local 9-535 took place April 15.
Not everyone wanted the merger. Some in 535 felt that the numbers worked against them, and in a merger with the much larger Local 9, they would have little influence. The makeup of the new local’s first executive board reflected that, with only four of its 15 appointees from Local 535.
But the local was struggling. Its numbers were declining, and younger musicians weren’t interested. Their nightclub work evaporated in the 1960s. And its reputation wasn’t the best. No less a jazz personage than trumpeter Buck Clayton had derisively labeled 535 as “one of those old Amos and Andy unions” when he had a run-in with them in 1961. To add to their troubles, their building at 409 Mass Ave needed extensive work and there was no money to pay for it. So even though many members didn’t want a merger, others, including outgoing president Sandy Sandiford, saw it as necessary.
The merger solved the AFM’s institutional problem, but it wasn’t a case of happily ever after for all concerned. As predicted, the Local 535 contingent didn’t wield much influence in the new local, and they continued to encounter resistance from the anti-merger elements of Local 9. (A young jazz musician who joined that local in 1968 told me what he thought of it: “There were some real racists running Local 9.”) And in an ironic twist, by merging, the Black musicians lost the independence they fought to gain when they broke away to form their own local back in 1915. In the early 1970s, many of the Black musicians dropped out.
That was more than 50 years ago, and there are few traces of the old locals today. The 535 union hall on Mass Ave was sold soon after the merger. In the 1980s, former members organized a series of Local 535 reunions, but attrition among the old rank and file ended that annual event. In 1988, the union sold its landmark neoclassical hall, the Musicians’ Mutual Relief Society Building on St Botolph Street, and moved to a less inspiring location in suburban Belmont. Thirty years after that, Local 9-535 moved back into the city, close to Symphony Hall. Along the way, much of the pre-merger history of the old locals was lost. I keep hoping that a box of photos will turn up in some South End attic, but at this late date, I’m not holding my breath.