Photo courtesy of the Colored Musicians Club
The Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, NY was the portal to the rest of the world for working-class musicians in the early 1920s. A renewed interest in the club is paving the way for jazz redux.
By Jessica Brant
Buffalo, NY is a city that rumbles with age-old tradition, and because of this, progress sometimes comes at a cost. Even so, there exist enclaves of younger, ungrudging supporters, those who honor the older traditions in art Buffalo is famous for. This ecosystem of young rubbing off on old, old rubbing off on young, has contributed to the creation of a new identity for the city of Good Neighbors, or a rebirth.
This identity includes a renewed interest in jazz. At one point, Buffalo was a playground for giants—renowned jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., conductor of smooth jazz, and Buffalo Music Hall of Fame inductee; pianist and professor Al Tinney, member of The Jive Bombers and ardent supporter of the arts; and George Scott, pioneer of Buffalo big band culture and music educator. Besides the love of jazz, these genre visionaries had one thing in common: they began their careers at the Colored Musicians Club on 145 Broadway, breaking through segregation to reach esteemed heights.
Footage courtesy of WIVB
Every artistic movement has a struggle to reckon with, and in Buffalo, struggle is no different. Buffalo remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, along with Detroit, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, to name a few. It’s never a rare sight to walk down a street on the West Side of Buffalo—for example, Massachusetts Avenue—and see, quite literally, a night and day portrayal of the city. On one side, restored homes dressed in fresh coats of paint, new balustrades on balconies, new handrails on porches, and pretty gardens, and on the other, a population in turmoil; dilapidated two-story homes split into apartment complexes, ravaged by gang fights and rent spikes. In many people’s popular opinions (ask a Buffalonian), gentrifying an area is like putting a new Band-Aid on an old problem; wounds are buried for the time being, but they never really go away.
In 1917, black jazz musicians in Buffalo turned to their community to solve problems during an economically stressful period. Local 43, the all-white Buffalo musicians union, prohibited black members from joining, so these musicians formed their own union, Local 533. A social club, the Colored Musicians Club, flourished soon after. In the 50s, the CMC gained autonomy through their purchasing powers, separate from the white union, and remained a separate entity despite desegregation mandates. Today, the CMC is uniquely one-in-a-million, gaining landmark notoriety in 1979. In 2018, the club was finally listed on the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places.
Footage courtesy of WGRZ
Jazz would not be what it is today without the hustle and sweat of stage performers’ past; gigging and jamming were how musicians practiced and communicated with each other, swapping secrets, pushing each other to be better. For your average gigging musician in Buffalo, the club was a portal to the rest of the jazz world. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane all famously walked through the doors at 145 Broadway. The club was the ears and eyes of the world, on a national and international scale. People here didn’t know color; they just knew whether or not you could lay down some jive.
Trends in jazz hit ears here first. New styles and new ways of playing passed in and out of town. Here, big band sound had a heyday. “When I was young, I dug Grover (Washington Jr.). I dug the young guys, because they were speaking my language. There were people that were a little resistant to it (the sound we were trying to create), but later on as the George Scott Band was getting more gigs, it finally hit home with people (in Buffalo),” said George Scott, director of the Colored Musicians Club and bandleader of the George Scott Band. In keeping within the boundaries of the artform, innovators like George Scott and Grover Washington Jr. created something bigger, unchecking jazz from its default box as a snarky subgenre and placing it into an accessible groove.
Then there are those musicians, like jazz pianist Ed Chilungu, who have blended the genre with other traditionally “antiquated” styles of playing, like classical, and more ubiquitous styles, like gospel. Ed, a music performance graduate of SUNY Purchase and student of bebop’s founding father, Al Tinney, is a younger musician who has put his time in at the CMC, forming friendships with jazz drummer Darryl Washington (Grover Washington’s brother, who still lives in Buffalo) and George Scott. “In playing my solo improvisations, I try to approach it like…a combining of styles…classical harmonies, jazz, and melodic flourishes, with contemporary gospel and Christian music,” he said of his blend. “The notes, the melodies…they’re subconsciously in my being.”
Despite cuts to music and arts education and a refusal to renew music teaching contracts in schools, jazz and its offshoots are still clinging to the zeitgeist in the city of Good Neighbors; George Scott stills gigs, and eight other big bands in Buffalo join him. He’s also orchestrating plans for a youth big band program for students suffering from these cutbacks, as chairman of the Michigan Street Corridor. But worry not, a strong-willed Scott told this writer. His mission is, and always was, crystal clear: put authenticity back into the art. “Some of the best music teachers don’t get renewed contracts (in Buffalo), and sometimes schools will hire somebody who lacks the real musical knowledge to teach,” he said. “I’m working to get that young musician exposed to jazz music.”
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Architectural firms are sharing renewed interest in Buffalo’s artistic past. Stieglitz Snyder Architecture proposed a $2 million renovation project that would dramatically change the look and feel of the land at the corner of Michigan and Broadway. According to the plan, now approved by the Historic Preservation Board, expanded parking, an extension to the south side of the building, and a first-floor reception space would be added to the CMC. Green rooms and meeting spaces would be added to the second floor performance space, which is also expected to receive new additions. This is a big deal for the venue, once host to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Project directors and fans of the club are projecting more legendary acts will follow in the coming years.
Editor’s Note: This music essay was submitted as a requirement for the NYU Music Industry Essentials certificate program.