Jazz in the sanctuary

By Immersion East Side Class

Immersion East Side, a summer-to-fall semester course that immerses students in experiences with Buffalo’s East Side religious communities, disinvested neighborhoods, and community-action organizations, invites the Buffalo and Canisius communities to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Union Local 533 who founded the Colored Musicians Club. The event, Jazz in the Sanctuary, will take place this Friday, November 18 in the Montante Cultural Center. The event features George Scott, ‘80  as leader of the Big Band comprising local 533 members.  Doors will open at 6:30p.m., and the concert will begin at 7p.m. Admission is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will follow.

   Founded in 1917, Union Local 533 provided union protections to Colored musicians at a time when they were excluded from other unions because of their race. Members were celebrated as some of the best musicians in the world. Many used the technical virtuosity and Jazz music itself as a method to oppose injustice, earn a living, and celebrate their culture. The Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo is the longest continuously operating African-American Musicians’ Club in the entire United States. From its earliest days, the club has created an environment where people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds can come together on Buffalo’s East Side because of their  mutual love for jazz music.

Scott, Board of Directors President for the Colored Musicians Club, expressed excitement about being able to have “Jazz in the Sanctuary” at Canisius. As a college alum and person who spent his childhood in the Hamlin Park area, Scott reminisced fondly about playing on the campus as a child. He noted that the College provided many services to neighborhood kids, including access to the pool, basketball court, and free lunches. “Basically, Canisius has recruited me since the age of 10,” said Scott during a recent interview. He also noted that a return to the kinds of activities once available through the College for neighborhood kids might “get them off the streets and encourage them to attend Canisius.”   

The Club’s historic and continuing involvement in the jazz movement has provided strength and hope for the region and Buffalo’s African American community. Celebrating 100 years of existence, the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, New York has been the location for performances by some of the biggest names in Jazz and other black musical forms. Some of the most well-known performers and members of Union Local 533 were Lil Armstrong (wife of Louis Armstrong), Pete Johnson, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Grover Washington, Jr., Duke Ellington, and Aretha Franklin. Many of the musicians, like Grover Washington, Jr. and George Scott, had their start in Buffalo and grew up in this “music town.”

As a location for big performances and after-hour jam sessions, the Colored Musicians  Club was often the first stop for many black musicians visiting Buffalo. The Club and Union Local 533 played vital roles in opposing many of the race-based injustices faced by musicians. Williams, during a recent interview, commented on how innovative the local has been, noting its role as a financial resource for the black community. “It allowed many black musicians to take care of their families with their music.” Unlike the whites-only unions, Local 533 was open to anyone who could meet the rigorous audition requirements. “It wasn’t who you were, but could you play? No matter what the plant looks like, we put our feet in the same soil,” said Williams.

The common soil of Jazz gave local members the ability to secure life insurance and access to the group’s credit union. Not only did the Club and union provide financial stability, it increased the musicians’ dignity by guaranteeing a living wage for their work. The union even allowed women as members, which led to it having the first female Union President in the nation in 1927.

As part of the East Side’s Hamlin Park neighborhood, the College is proud to host Jazz in the Sanctuary in connection with the Colored Musicians Club. The club and its museum are one of the many gems on Buffalo’s East Side. We could not be happier to have the Club on campus, because it is a pillar of hope for aspiring musicians, as well as lovers of great jazz. Canisius’ role is to bask in the light of inspired musicians this Friday!

The Colored Musicians Club is comprised of very talented individuals and, together, is an exceptional group. It is sure to be an amazing night of music, food, and solidarity, and the Canisius community is welcomed and urged to come out to support the band and celebrate this historic event!

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