World renown jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal as a young teen played the clubs of Pittsburgh's Hill District. In a radio interview he referred to the Hill as the "capital of jazz" and the dome of the capital was the Musician's club. "...the Musicians Club. To me that was the dome of the capital as far as music was concerned."
The Musician’s Club of Musicians Union Local 471 was a lively after hours club that presented great jazz by local and national musicians for 30 years. It was located on the second floor of the musicians union Local 471 headquarters building at 1213 Wyle Avenue in Pittsburgh’s lower Hill District. The club was a piano bar and rehearsal space that was the vital social and creative hub for jazz musicians. It was the meeting place for African American and white musicians from all parts of Pittsburgh and the country. Pittsburgh and national musicians socialized, jammed, learned from each other, auditioned, formed bands, booked gigs, rehearsed, and performed at the club. On afternoons and weekday evenings the Musicians’ Club space was used for auditions, rehearsals, and private jam sessions. Late at night it was an after hours club. National touring musicians who played the Stanley Theater or the clubs of downtown and the Hill District went to the Musician’s Club after their gigs for food, drinks, and jam sessions. They socialized and played into the late hours.
Local 471 member trumpeter Charles Austin said in an interview "When the club was there...it was open 24/7, 48 hours a day, I mean it was always open. You'd go by and you'd play, we'd put a band together. You play, you learn, you play new tunes.....We were all of one cause, it was just to play music you know".
The Musician’s club was also a social hub for jazz fans. Obtaining a liquor license in 1941 the Musician’s Club began presenting bands and floor shows. Non-musicians were issued associate memberships so that they could attend the private after hours shows and jam sessions. To become an associate member one had to be endorsed by a full member of local 471 and voted in by the union’s executive committee. In the 1940s saxophonist Leroy Brown led the popular Sunday night sessions that were they only place to hear jazz on Sundays as all of the other clubs were closed due to the Blue laws. During the 1950’s Wednesdays were “Celebrity Nights” when national touring artists performed with members of local 471. Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins were a few of the many stars who performed at the Musician’s club.
Legendary Master Jam Sessions
"in Pittsburgh a guy might jump off a garbage truck and play you off the stage." -Saxophonist Hill Jordan
Not every touring jazz musician dared to jam at the Musician’s Club. National musicians were afraid of the stiff competition that they faced from the local 471 members who include the likes of Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldrige, Kenny Clark, Stanley Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams, Errol Garner, George Benson and Ahmad Jamal. To trip up the visiting musicians the Local's musicians often played songs in different keys. Many musicians were afraid of skilled bebop trumpeter Tommy Turrentine who could bring them down a peg. Roy Eldridge who practiced for hours every day was ready to do battle. Ahmad Jamal once played Woody Herman off the stage after Herman called him a “kid”.
In a radio interview Ahmad Jamal described the Pittsburgh players who frequented the Musician’s Club jam sessions: “Joe Kennedy, the great violinist, was one of the prominent figures in the jam sessions. There was the great guitarist Ray Crawford, who started out playing saxophone; he was one of the great saxophonists. Joe Harris. Ray Brown would come back, when he wasn’t on the road; he would come back and play, too. Leroy Brown, the famous Leroy Brown in Pittsburgh. Osie Taylor, a phenomenal saxophone player. Sam Johnson, the great Sam Johnson, a pianist. Cecil Brooks, who now has a son, Cecil Brooks, III. Cecil was one of the great figures around 471”
Only musicians who had the chops to play more technically difficult jazz and more adventurous bebop came to the Musician’s Club to take on Pittsburgh’s jazz virtuosos. Musicians from the Charlie Barnett, Claude Thornhill, and Ted Heath bands came for the challenge. Musicians from the “Mickey Mouse” bands like Kay Kyser or Spike Jones went to play Dixieland in the Local 60’s basement club at its union hall at 709 Forbes Avenue.
Formation of Local 471
Local 60, chartered in 1897, was the first American Federation of Musicians union in Pittsburgh. Practicing racial discrimination it did not accept or represent African American musicians. Local 60 controlled the theaters, dance halls, and music clubs of downtown Pittsburgh and the white neighborhoods. These venues were off limits to most African American musicians and patrons. A few of the most successful African American performers, such as Duke Ellington, were permitted to perform at downtown venues. Most African American musicians performed in the Hill District at the Roosevelt Theater, the Savoy Ball Room, and the Hill's many clubs.
The Pittsburgh African American Musicians' Association was formed by a group of African Americans to represent the black musicians who played the clubs, theaters, and dance halls of the Hill District and Western Pennsylvania. It received its Local 471 charter from the American Federation of Musicians in 1908.
The Musician's Club
The Musician’s Club and Local 471’s offices were located in the building that was formerly one of Pittsburgh first jazz clubs the Collins Inn. Louis Deppe got his start there in the 1920s. Gus Greenlee bought the Collins Inn in 1923, renamed it the Paramount Club, and operate it as an entertainment venue until the early 1930s. Local 471 occupied the building sometime in the mid 1930s after Greenlee opened the Crawford Grill in 1933. The Hill District’s historic Musician’s Club building on Wyle Avenue was torn down in the 1950’s to make way for the Civic Arena which in turn was torn down in 2011 to make way for an office complex /shopping center. Musicians Local 471 relocated to a bar on the corner of Enterprise and Frankstown avenues in East Liberty. It moved again in 1954 to 6500 Frankstown Avenue where it continued to be a gathering place for musicians and music patrons until 1965.
Merger with Local 60
In March of 1965, the national American Federation of Musicians initiated discussions between officers of Local 471 and Local 60 to force a merger of the two organizations. The merger took place in March of 1966. As the merged union could only operate one headquarters’ office, the Local 471 office and Musicians’ Club were closed. Local 60 also closed its own bar and club at the same time. The era of musicians from all around the Pittsburgh area and visiting musicians getting together to socialize and jam ended. Drummer Cecil Brook II, trumpeter Judge Watson, and pianist George Spaulding all lamented that the closing of the Musicians club’s as a "blow to Pittsburgh's music scene." Charles Austin in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette said "One of the union's founding ideas was the fellowship. You get the sense of musicians helping each other, teaching each other how to play and learning the business side of things. These were things that went by the wayside when the merger happened.”
In an interview with WKCR radio in 1995 Ahmad Jamal said: “They should never have torn down Local 471. They should have kept the building (it’s a historical landmark), and moved it at least. But that was lost, which was a tremendous loss.”
To preserve the history of the musicians who gathered at the Musicians Club to play and network Charles Austin recorded seventy-four oral histories of members of Local 471. The recordings are preserved at the University of Pittsburgh Archieves as part of the American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh Oral History Project (AAJPSP).
A Pennsylvania historical marker honoring the Musicians Club will be dedicated in June of 2011.