GERTRUDE HARVEY WRIGHT was a member of Seattle’s first African American musicians’ union during its brief and rocky existence from 1918 to 1924. Virginia Hughes, a "Mrs. Austin," and Edythe Turnham are the other female members listed in the rolls of the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 458. These trailblazing women worked with their male counterparts both at union headquarters and on the bandstand. Following the demise of the short-lived local, they joined and helped run Seattle’s follow-up segregated union, Local 493, which endured for over 30 years, from 1924 to 1958. In addition to their trade union activities, these female musicians helped keep jazz alive from the 1910s through the World War II glory days and on to the fabled bebop era of the 1950s. All four women learned to maneuver their musical careers within a complicated Jim Crow union system. This is their story.
At the turn of the century, Seattle’s African American population numbered only 466. Musicians were rare among the city’s black female population, most of whom worked as maids or launderers. Most black men fared little better, gaining employment as cooks, railroad porters, waiters, or elevator operators. African American men also found work as longshoremen and as stewards on ocean liners such as those operated by the Pacific Steamship Company, but they were subject to the "last hired, first fired" rule following the World War I economic boom. Decades later, in the early 1940s, newly arriving blacks obtained work in the shipyards. The unionized World War II economy finally provided both black men and women a variety of jobs beyond unskilled labor and domestic work. They became round-the-clock shift workers. With money in their pockets, they sought after-hours respite in the clubs where Seattle’s black musicians thrived.
Beginning in the Prohibition era, Seattle’s black population had an active music scene that also attracted white revelers. Numerous jazz clubs-including the Mardi Gras, the Black & Tan, and the Rocking Chair-sprang up around Jackson Street, extending from 5th to 12th avenues and from Yesler Way to Weller Street. Other community venues-such as the black YMCA at 23rd and Olive, the Washington Social Club at 23rd and Madison, and the Black Elks Club on 18th and Madison-provided places for Seattle’s African American men and women to meet, talk, dance, and listen to music.
Tuba-playing Powell Barnett had joined the white musicians’ Local 76 in 1913, taking advantage of its 1893 charter, which invited membership of "all instrumental performers." Five years later Local 458 was officially chartered on August 9, 1918, when Barnett and a small group of African American musicians banded together. However, Jim Crow union work rules kept black women and men underpaid in a two-tiered system and forbade them from socializing at the white union hall. They were also denied entry into the lucrative downtown, public parks, radio, hotel, and orchestral music markets. Balkanized into territory in and around Jackson Street, where most of Seattle’s black population lived due to restrictive covenants, these black musicians held sway in small clubs and speakeasies.
Gertrude Wright stepped into the complicated world of union negotiating early on, first appearing in Local 458 correspondence on February 25, 1924. Born in 1888 in Seattle, Washington Territory, Gertrude was the first child of Eva Ellis Harvey and Charles Harvey. In 1914 she married George Wright, with whom she had two sons. She ¬participated in First American Methodist Episcopal church activities, and in 1915 was also a member of the DuBois Dramatic Club. During the early 1920s she played piano in small jazz bands, performing in Seattle and mountain towns such as Gold Bar with fellow Local 458 members Robert McCurdy and Frank Waldron.
Unfortunately, Seattle’s first black musicians’ union operated somewhat haphazardly and finally collapsed in April 1924. Just prior to the collapse, Gertrude Wright, along with Robert H. McCurdy, Charles Adams, Leon Jackson, and S. L. Murray, wrote to international officials in an unsuccessful effort to save the union.
Nine months later, in December 1924, Seattle’s African American musicians established a second segregated union, the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 493. For over 30 years Local 493 successfully elected musician-leaders of both sexes and established and controlled union-scale jobs at clubs and halls within its territory in and around Madison Avenue and Jackson Street.
Some statistics help provide a perspective on these early female musicians. At any given time women were a minority within the "colored: union. In December 1924 there were 35 black union musicians; that figure grew to 55 six months later, with females making up about 10 percent of the membership. By 1929 piano-playing Andrus (or Ann) Coy was a 493 musician, along with her husband, Texas bandleader Gene Coy, and the ten men in their band, the Black Aces, then based in Seattle. In 1941 if not earlier, Evelyn Bundy Taylor became a 493 dues-payer. At this same time Bundy Taylor was also a board member of the scrappy union. In later years other African American female unionists included: Patti Bown and Patricia Braxton, piano; drummer, club-owner, and vocalist Myrtle Francoise; Derniece Melody Jones and Elsie Martinez, piano and organ; trumpeter Magie Shumate; Merceedees Walton, piano and vocals; Gwendolyn Webb, bongos and vocals; and Ruby Bishop, now 89, who still plays piano and sings professionally.
Edythe Turnham sparkled during the Roaring Twenties as a pioneering female member of this black union. She was both a bandleader and piano player. Born Edith Payne, she came to Spokane in 1900 from Topeka, Kansas. Seven years later she married drummer Floyd Turnham, who was then waiting tables at the Spokane Club. Edythe began performing in the 1910s on a vaudeville circuit through eastern Washington and Idaho as part of a family minstrel troupe. Edythe, Floyd, and their son Floyd Jr., who became a renowned alto saxophonist, moved from Spokane to Tacoma in 1920. Around 1922 Edythe and family came to Seattle. Shortly thereafter she and her union quintet were performing at venues like the Copper Kettle, the Alhambra, the Black Elks Club, and the Bungalow Dance Hall. By 1926, when the family was being referred to as "popular musicians," they had just bought a new home at 707 22nd Street. That same year Edythe’s band also featured two union officers, trumpeter Charles Adams and tuba man Powell Barnett.
Turnham was a talented and charismatic musician and bandleader who next led her own big band. This group, originally billed as The Knights of Syncopation, became the Black Hawks in 1928. As a prominent Local 493 member, Turnham and her Black Hawks hit big in 1928 with a photo and story in the white union’s newspaper, Musicland. Indicative of her stature at this time, the bandleader worked with white manager John Dallavo. He booked Turnham’s Black Hawks for an international tour on John Considine’s Orpheum Circuit from "Winnipeg to Long Beach," including a week-long run at Seattle’s Orpheum Theatre. An unidentified 1928 press clip from the tour praised "Edythe Turnham and her jazz band of Negro players," noting their "real Southern flavor." The Turnham family later moved to California, where the band did well as the Dixie Aces and Ms. Turnham continued to work until around 1945.
Evelyn Bundy is noteworthy as the only female board member of Local 493 to be identified. Bundy first came to prominence in Garfield High School’s band. During her school days she and drummer Leonard Gayton formed the popular and well-regarded Garfield Ramblers. Following high school Bundy took over the band’s leadership, renaming it the Evelyn Bundy Band. Formed in 1926, it was an influential and early fixture of the Seattle jazz scene.
Bundy was born into a musical family and studied with Seattle music patriarch and 493 stalwart Frank Waldron. She sang and played drums, piano, saxophone, and banjo. Fellow musicians and 493 men in her early bands included the Adams brothers-Jimmy and Wayne, who played trumpet and saxophone, respectively-along with pianist Creon Thomas. Bundy’s band played at various venues and black society functions. In 1929 she married Charles Taylor, who worked as a plasterer and also helped publicize her band. Their son, Charles Taylor Jr., who became a prominent Seattle bandleader and saxophonist, gave a youthful Quincy Jones his first job.
During the 1930s the Bundy-Taylor home became an important place for travelling musicians to socialize after their performances. Charles Jr. recalled an array of famous musicians like Lionel Hampton, Erskine Hawkins, and Lena Horne all stopping to jam and enjoy the convivial atmosphere of their downstairs music room and bar. By 1941 Evelyn Bundy (Taylor) broke Local 493’s male-dominated pattern, becoming its first female board member. Leonard Gayton, Marion Borders, and Frank Bufford rounded out the 1941 board. Taylor and other 493 members were busy that year co-hosting the 46th Annual Convention of the American Federation of Musicians, held at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel.
Despite the occasional female administrator like Bundy, and fitting a pattern for the era, black union officials were overwhelmingly male. Bass horn player Powell Barnett is listed as the first president, followed by Charles Adams. Robert H. McCurdy is named secretary. In 1925 Barnett again became president. A tantalizing 1926 reference to a "President Turnham" (Floyd or, possibly Edythe) could not be pinned down. Another president is listed only as "Johnson," while "Barnett" is so named in 1934 and 1935. During these early days the black union met at the white local’s headquarters on Fourth Avenue at Lenora, though its members still could not socialize there.
A leadership change came in the late 1930s when the Jamaican-born saxophonist Gerald Wells ran Seattle’s black musicians’ union, reigning as president through 1949. By then the union no longer met under Jim Crow conditions at the white headquarters. Meetings took place at Gerald and Elizabeth Wells’s home. This was in a Benjamin McAdoo-designed four-plex located at 401 19th Avenue East. Here again, women played an important role. Elizabeth Wells recalled,
The Musicians’ Union was in our home, in our hallway really. You’d have to pay each year for the charter, and of course, none of them had any money, including my husband. And so I’d have to get the charter for them. Women were able to find jobs more readily than men.
Bandleader, pianist, and vocalist Derniece H. "Melody" Jones also broke ground as a prominent Local 493 member during the mid-1940s. Born in Chicago in 1906, Jones moved first to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After finishing high school she moved to Harlem. There, at rent parties and in the Lafayette Theater, she met composer, recording artist, and stride piano legend Thomas "Fats" Waller. He offered her tips on her piano and organ playing. Jones stayed busy working in New York theaters and cabarets during this era. She was also a veteran of USO tours beginning in 1941, traveling throughout the United States and the Far East. Ms. Jones was a seasoned professional musician by 1945 when she began performing regularly in and around Seattle. Today she is also remembered as the person who brought a then-unknown Ray Charles to town from Tampa, Florida. On the point of leaving the Emerald City for a 1948 USO tour in Germany, she gave her gig at The Black & Tan to Garcia McKee. She also gave him money for the 17-year-old Charles’s Trailways bus ticket. McKee, a union guitarist, brought the blind piano man in for a trio show, along with fellow union bassist Milt Garred, and Ray Charles Robinson’s career got a boost in the clubs and speakeasies governed by Local 493.
As an early female instrumentalist, Jones worked with another dynamic union woman. This was the drummer, vocalist, and club-owner Myrtle "Myrt" Francois. Francois and Jones fronted a popular local band called Melody and Mirth. These two became role models for up-and-coming Seattle women who aspired to be professional musicians. (Patti Bown, pianist, composer, and 493 member, described drummer Francois as an early inspiration.) Melody Jones’s time as a leader was not without incident, and she recalled losing jobs because she was not a light-skinned or "high yellow" female entertainer.
Veteran "On the Scene" photographer Al Smith snapped a picture of her band performing at an undisclosed Jackson Street nightclub. Indicative of the relaxed attitude towards union regulations, the institution of "The Kitty" was widespread as a "tip jar" and was often prominently displayed. Since it was against union regulations to accept tips, this practice was disparaged by Local 493’s business agent, the baritone saxophonist and bandleader William Funderberg.
During the postwar era internationally acclaimed vocalist, bandleader, and living legend Ernestine Anderson began to make a name for herself in Seattle. At just 18 years of age, she was featured in a unionized, interracial band. While Anderson was not a 493 member, as an actress and vocalist she was a member of Actors’ Equity Association. Following this arrangement, she worked regularly with union musicians, including 493 men Ulysses G. "Jabo" Ward and Robert Russell on tenor sax and trumpet, respectively, who were in her band for this concert.
It was the middle of 1946 and local impresario, KXA radio personality, and integrationist jazz crusader Norm Bobrow was producing the well-received "Northwest All-Star Swing Concert." Bobrow was a friend to many Local 493 members, including its president Gerald Wells, and is also credited with bringing swing music to the attention of Seattle’s white majority.
The band featured at the Northwest All-Star Concert illustrates the complexities of dual unionism in Seattle. Guitarist and teacher Al Turay, a self-described "Big Swede" and lifetime member of the white union, was a fellow traveler with Local 493 players. The easy-going guitarist seemed ever-present at black, after-hours jam sessions in Jackson Street clubs and loved to sit in, picking up pointers along the way.
Another musician in the band was Ernestine Anderson’s bassist, Bill Rinaldi, who was the first white musician to join the otherwise all African American union when in 1937 he simply gave up on Local 76 and joined 493. In fact, he may have joined the black union in the early 1930s when he played with New Orleans "Creole" saxophonist Joe Darensbourg’s band, the Genesee Street Shufflers. The Shufflers and Rinaldi played the rough-and-tumble Silver Dollar Saloon in heavily unionized Grand Coulee, Washington. The decade surrounding the construction of Grand Coulee Dam (1933-1942) was a wide-open period that found other 493 bands like Gene Coy’s Black Aces, with Ann Coy, playing the boomtown taverns there.
Noting its relaxed attitude toward race and its inclusive environment, famed trumpeter and union stalwart Floyd Standifer referred to Local 493 as a "Rainbow Coalition." The trumpeter maintained that this was not the case with the white union, whose leaders did not respect 493 players’ musicianship. Along with a handful of whites like Rinaldi, the black union also had members with Hawaiian and Hispanic surnames.
Patti Bown is the fourth and final Local 493 member spotlighted in this account. Born in Seattle July 26, 1931, she came from a musical family. Patti and three of her four sisters had perfect pitch. Although Patti’s mother could play the blues, she did not want her daughter to become a jazz musician. Bown was a natural at the piano. She grew up during a musically rich period alongside Quincy Jones, Floyd Standifer, and Ray Charles, who taught her how to accompany singers. She remembered, "When I walked home from school, I passed the pool parlor and the Mardi Gras, and they always had jazz playing. My mother was saying ‘No!’ but the music was sensuous and it said, ‘Yes!’"
In 1949 Bown received a music scholarship to attend Seattle University. She also studied at Cornish School of Fine Arts and the University of Washington. In 1952 she performed with the Seattle Symphony and had dreams of working with her sister Edith (who went on to marry jazz arranger Jerry Valentine) as a piano duo.
At 22 she was a full-fledged member of Seattle’s black musicians’ union, joining officially on December 27, 1953. Local 493 operated out of the Blue Note, at 1319 East Jefferson Street, when Bown signed on. This clubhouse-style setting, complete with bar and dance floor, became the go-to, after-hours spot for fabled jam sessions. Here locals like Bown could learn their craft, trading riffs with touring greats like trumpeter Thad Jones from the Count Basie Orchestra. In a fascinating arrangement, the Blue Note was both an administrative union hall and a cultural center for bebop music.
Departing for New York in the mid 1950s, Bown remained a union musician and became a member of Gotham’s AFM Local 802, which was never segregated. After at first scuffling in the Big Apple, she eventually performed with Quincy Jones, Gene Ammons, and Dinah Washington, among others. In 1959 Columbia Records released the first of two albums she recorded thanks to a good word from Jones. Patti Bown Plays Big Piano featured the hard-swinging pianist in a trio setting with drummer Ed Shaughnessy, of "Tonight Show" fame, and bassist Joe Benjamin. Bown went on to work with Quincy Jones on other projects, such as his Pure Delight album, and was a regular at the Village Gate jazz club in New York.
In 1959 Bown and two other members of Seattle’s black musicians’ union got a shot at international fame in Europe. Quincy Delight Jones, then 26, did not forget "my homeys from Seattle," and hired three of his fellow 493 musicians to work with him in a dream band. Bown played piano; Buddy Catlett, bass; and Floyd Standifer, trumpet. They were all part of the orchestra for the blues opera Free and Easy. Having left Seattle earlier to tour with Lionel Hampton, Jones was then living in Paris. Through impresario John Hammond, Quincy met Stanley Chase, a producer of this Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer show for which "Q" was to provide a stage band. Set for a four-city tour of the European continent, the show was to go on to London, and finally to Broadway in New York.
Events did not go as planned. In addition to his Seattle pals, Jones hired Clark Terry, Budd Johnson, and female trombonist and arranger Melba Liston. They rehearsed for two months in Holland, but the show folded after a brief Paris run. Quincy, noting that this was "the best band I ever had," reached into his own pocket to keep the band together. Traveling through Europe "like vagabonds" on the strength of their well-received Birth of a Band album, it was a rollercoaster of a tour. A few good breaks and a lot of love kept the band in Europe for 10 months, although Jones returned to the United States "dead broke and deeply in debt." Still, he saw fit to praise all the members of the tour, describing Bown as "a child prodigy."
The changing times hit Seattle’s unionized jazz musicians. By the mid 1950s the influence of Seattle’s segregated musicians’ union was tapering off, signaling the end of what had been a way of life for more than three decades. It became clear that Local 493 would have to merge with Local 76. Tuba-blowing Powell Barnett had retained dual membership in both locals and was a natural to help with the merger. Barnett, along with 493 women Ruth Sykes and Ruth Rhymer, negotiated from 1954 until 1956, when the two unions formally agreed to amalgamate.
Despite favorable votes on both sides in December 1956, the actual merger did not take place until January 14, 1958, after a holding committee settled the black union’s financial concerns and sold the building and lot of the "Blue Note," 493’s beloved clubhouse headquarters.At that point the days of dual musicians’ unions in Seattle were history. Many promises had been made about better conditions coming for all, but when the two groups finally amalgamated in 1958, economic payoffs eluded black musicians. Yet from 1918 through 1958 a small group of determined union women performed shoulder-to-shoulder with their male partners and helped create great jazz in the region. They also kept alive the black musicians’ union-a product of the times-which managed its own affairs, ultimately had its own headquarters venue, and became a hub for a racially diverse membership.
David Keller is an archivist and historian. This article is excerpted from a longer manuscript on the history of Seattle’s black musicians’ unions. Research for this project was supported by a grant from 4Culture.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (sidebar)
Traveling, dues-paying bands were an important source of income for Local 493. When out-of-town black bands played Seattle, they usually fed the local’s coffers by paying work dues, bringing in much-needed revenue. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm=members of the American Federation of Musicians’ union-comprised a rare all-female interracial band that played the Negro touring circuit across the country during the 1940s. During World War II the military draft decimated the ranks of the country’s traditionally all-male big bands. This situation provided work for various all-female group, including the International Sweethearts and the black All-Star Girl Orchestra of Texas-born Eddie Durham. Both of these bands played concerts in Seattle in 1944. With parallels to "Rosie the Riveter" in Seattle’s bustling World War II economy, the International Sweethearts toured frequently and were surely a source of race and gender pride among Seattle women in Local 493 and the entire African American community.
The International Sweethearts originated from the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, traveling internationally as a swing big band from 1940 to 1949. The term "International" in the band’s name served as a protective cover for band members who were black, white, Chinese, and Mexican. According to leader Anna Mae Windburn, "We had so many mixed girls, mulattas..." as well as white alto player Roz Cron, who was coached to describe herself as "mixed." Such a covert line-up resulted in frequent run-ins with the police, though not in Seattle. "So we had quite a time," Windburn noted, "we did a lot to break down prejudice in the South." The band also helped shatter the common myth that female musicians could not play. Defying this stereotype, the Sweethearts swung hard. This "all-girl" group was a popular favorite of the tough audiences at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and from 1941 to 1945 they performed at the venue just as often as their male counterparts.