It's Never Too Late

by Philip Nyhuis

Buffalo Jazz Ensemble
Members of the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble
rehearse at Delaware Park Casino in 1975.
From left: Joe Ford, Sabu Adeyola,
Phil DiRé, Jeremy Wahl, and Al Tinney.
Photo by Lou Mainaccio.
1976 may not have been the smartest time to move to Buffalo. The steel mills were on the skids, downtown was dying, the mayor was turning Niagara Square into a walled fort, and a historic blizzard waited in the wings. But that summer the city was an exciting place to explore on bike—street after street of amazing old houses, leafy neighborhoods, grand public buildings, and a famous river rushing out of a big blue lake. And then there was the jazz. It seemed to be everywhere—on the air and in the clubs. Al Wallack and George Beck played it on WEBR, and John Hunt was creating some of the best public radio jazz programming in the nation on WBFO. At the Statler, there were jazz workshops with Marian and Jimmy McPartland, Helen Hume, Vic Dickenson, Herb Hall, and Buddy Tate on Sunday, an open jam with Jaman on Monday, and Charlie Bird and Bill Evans playing double bills Tuesday through Saturday. And that was just one week. Also appearing in the area that summer were Jackie and Roy, Spyro Gyra, Dr. Jazz, Birthright, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Spider Martin, George Benson, Nancy Wilson, George Shearing (in residence at Chautauqua), Stan Kenton (at the Bicentennial Ball in Central Terminal), Phil Woods, and Maynard Ferguson. Alvin Ailey was at Artpark (performing an Ellington repertory with the Ellington band in the pit) and so was a big band version of the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble led by Jimmy Cooper. Later that fall, Sinatra packed the Aud and Della Reese sang with the BPO. Yet people kept telling me I got to Buffalo too late.

In 1905, when W. E. B. Du Bois and others founded the Niagara Movement, the African-American population of Buffalo was just over 1,200. Twenty years later that number was around 9,000, reflecting the growing black populations in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and New York as thousands of southern and rural black Americans, lured by the prospect of good-paying jobs, migrated to the industrial cities of the North in increasing numbers. In Buffalo, most of these newcomers (following the great waves of European immigration—Germans, Irish, Italians, and Poles—to the city in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) settled between the spokes of William, Broadway, and Sycamore streets just east of where they converge downtown. It was here that Buffalo’s first jazz clubs took root in the twenties and thirties and flourished for several decades until a Molotov cocktail of political hysteria, racism, and urban renewal shut them down and jazz moved elsewhere, got respectable, and became an art form. The Vendome, Moonglow, and Little Harlem featured floorshows, chorus girls, and nationally renowned jazz players like Lil Armstrong, Jonah Jones, Jimmy Lunceford, and Stuff Smith. By the forties and fifties, there was jazz on practically every corner in clubs like the Horseshoe Bar, Mandy’s, Paradise, Billy’s & Joe’s, Brogan’s, the Rhythm Club, Ryan’s, Johnny’s Ellicott Grill, the Golden Glove Lounge, and Dan Montgomery’s. One of my early discoveries was that there are two kinds of people in Buffalo: those who leave, and those who remember how great things used to be. In the latter category, nobody has fonder memories than jazz people.

Jimmy Cheatham Band
The Jimmy Cheatham Band playing during the first
Allentown Art Festival in 1958.
Photos courtesy of Art Anderson.
“There were sessions at the Pine Grill, and there were at least a dozen jazz clubs going all the time,” says longtime Buffalo jazz enthusiast Lou Marinaccio. “Billie Holiday at the Zanzibar, Roland Kirk at the Apex, Freddie Hubbard at the Revilot, Wade Legge at the Kitty Kat, Clark Terry or Cannonball at the Royal Arms. You couldn’t get around to hear everybody in one night. People from Toronto came here to shop for high fashion and hang out in the clubs. For show business, music, and nightlife, Buffalo was second only to New York City. It was a happening city. But I came up in the fifties and sixties, and guys used to tell me, ‘This is nothing, you should have seen it ten or twenty years ago.’”

Birth of the Cool:
The Colored
Musicians Club

by Joe Sweeney

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is a building that turns heads. Thousands of glass panes form striking triangular shapes, reflecting the sunlight in dazzling ways. The building that stands at 145 Broadway in Buffalo couldn’t be more ordinary: a two-story structure of faded red brick, with a dingy storefront on the first floor and an unassuming row of windows on the second. When comparing these locations, it’s best to remember the slogan we all learned in Tolerance 101: It’s what’s inside that counts. What the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo lacks in visual wonders is more than made up for by its incredible history and under-estimated value to the community. Founded in 1935 by the Buffalo Local 533—one of the first-ever African-American musicians’ unions—the Club’s humble stage has supported the weight of countless jazz giants, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey, and Lena Horne. It remains one of the premier jazz clubs in the area, putting on vibrant, eclectic shows almost every night of the week. It’s also one of precious few educational outlets offered to our city’s aspiring musicians; the club holds open instruction sessions every Saturday from 1-3 p.m.

The tight staircase leading up to the venue is like thousands of others in this neighborhood, but this one acts as a hearth, an introduction to a room alive with the kind of warmth and energy only history can provide. Where the Hall of Fame has Gene Simmons’ bat suit and Jim Morrison’s report card, the Colored Musicians Club has the echoes of Ella’s croons, the shadows of Blakey’s rim shots, and the memories of a golden age of music that will never be replicated. Those who prefer style to substance can make the three-hour drive. I’ll take the chills of sharing space with Lady Day, any day.
Colored Musicians Club
Bob Crump Pete Suggs Trio Jimmy Cheatham Band
Elvin Shepherd The Roosevelt Memorial Band Doristine Blackwell
Snapshots from the glorious past of the CMC
(shown at top) Top row, l-r: Bob Crump, Pete Suggs
Trio (important players from Local 533), and the
Jimmy Cheatham band. (l-r: Lou Hackney, bass;
Ducky Rice at the mike; Bill Crump, Bob Crump,
and leader Jimmy Cheatham, standing). Bottom row,
l-r: Tenor player Elvin Shepherd.; The Roosevelt
Memorial Band at Masten High School, now City
Honors; and Doristine Blackwell, vocalist with the
Jimmy Cheatham and C.Q. Price bands.
Archival photos courtesy of Dr. Monroe Fordham.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, black musicians in Buffalo couldn’t get a job in a downtown hotel, theater, or nightclub because they were not members of the musicians’ union. And of course the reason they weren’t in the union was because the American Federation of Musicians Local 43 didn’t admit anybody who wasn’t white. After the International AFM turned down an appeal for help, the black musicians formed their own union—Local 533—in 1917. The next year, the members organized a social club where they could relax, hang out, and enjoy each other’s company. In 1935, that organization officially became the Colored Musicians Club of Buffalo, where, during the following decades, practically every major jazz performer passing through Buffalo paid a visit and the jam sessions often went on until dawn. Today, it’s all that’s left of the city’s legendary jazz corridor. Despite its dwindling membership and absence of celebrity musicians, the CMC stays afloat on the strength of its powerful musical legacy, its landmark status, the odd government grant, and the enthusiasm of its remaining members. Bands continue to rehearse at 145 Broadway nearly every night of the week, Sunday night jam sessions attract veteran and aspiring players, and the gala Easter Ball still features half a dozen bands, the club rooms packed with loyal listeners decked out in sharp suits and vernal finery.

In the late forties, when the mills were cranking out tons of steel, jobs were plentiful, and people who worked hard all week enjoyed spending their money, the Musicians Club drew so many people on Sundays that the line of listeners and instrumentalists stretched down the stairs, out the door, and around the block. In those days the building was home to both the club and Local 533 offices, yet many of the aspiring players were Italian kids from the West Side like Sam Noto, a young trumpet player who wanted to play like Harry James until somebody put on a Bird and Diz record for him and changed his life.

“It was at the black local that I got to play in front of people for the first time,” says Noto, “and to test out what I used to practice at home playing along with the records—Fats Navarro and Dizzy and Miles.” One of the people Sam listened to at the club was Elvin Shepherd, an advanced trumpet player who later switched to tenor saxophone. In the seventies and eighties, Shepherd led a big band rehearsal at the club, gigged at the Little Harlem and other venues with his quartet, and was a regular at Sam Falzone’s Sunday afternoon sessions at the Cloister. In addition to conducting music therapy classes at the State Hospital, Shep was an important mentor for many young students of jazz. One of them became pop jazz saxophone star Grover Washington, Jr., one of Buffalo’s most famous native sons.

Sam Noto went out on the road at age seventeen and by the end of the 1950s had played both lead and jazz trumpet with Stan Kenton and toured with Louis Bellson and Pearl Bailey. Yet he returned often to Buffalo, and each time found fewer opportunities to work locally. Finally, after leaving the Count Basie band in the mid-sixties, he decided to make a stand in the city and, with the help of jazz promoter Frank St. George, found steady work at the Prince Edward on Pearl Street. In 1958, St. George became a patron saint of jazz in Buffalo when he opened the Jazz Center, a coffeehouse that presented live jazz every weekend and provided gigs for musicians like Noto, Larry Covelli, Louie Marino, Tommy Azarello, Wade Legge, Herman Green, Skinny Burgan, Ray Chamberlain, Linc Milliman, and many other instrumentalists. In 1965, Noto opened his own club, Renaissance, which, during its one-year existence, also offered a venue to local players and was the setting for at least one historic Noto recording. Unable to get a beer and wine license, Noto closed the club and worked briefly making car batteries before closing a chapter on local jazz and leaving town for steady work in a Las Vegas show band.

Meanwhile, jazz had evolved from entertaining nightclub music to a highly demanding discipline—demanding for both performer and listener alike. But by the sixties there was of course another music—also evolved from blues and honky-tonk and gospel and field hollers and lieder and Tin Pan Alley—and that music had become the lingua franca and cultural touchstone of a new generation of party animals. Rock and roll—in all its power and vitality and immediacy and many guises—was here to stay. This period also marked the resurgence of the older jazz forms—swing and Dixieland—as revivalist groups like Eli Konikoff’s Yankee Six and the Bar-Room Buzzards began appearing at established venues like the Town Casino and Glen Casino. Many of the top players left for New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, but a resilient core of beboppers and modernists remained to keep the flame alive and wait for their next opportunity. It wasn’t long in coming. In 1969, three things happened that would affect the Buffalo jazz scene for many years to come: Al Tinney hit town; Phil DiRé got out of the Army; and a new musicians’ union—AFM Local 92—was formed. It seems amazing now that even after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers and long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Buffalo musicians’ unions were still segregated. But a big part of the reason was the opposition of the members of Local 533 to joining their white counterparts in Local 43.

Buffalo Jazz Musicians
Buffalo Jazz Musicians
Buffalo Jazz Musicians
Buffalo Jazz Musicians
Buffalo Jazz Musicians
Buffalo Jazz Musicians
A selection of contemporary jazz
performers, including from top:.
Dan Hull, Don Menza, Buddy Fadak
and Peggy Farrell, Joe Brancato,
Paul LaDuca, and Peggy Scalzo.
Photos by Sharon Nyhuis.
“With 150 members, our local was solvent,” says saxophonist and former Local 533 member Art Anderson. “We had life membership after twenty-five years and a $1,000 insurance policy. And we lost all that when we joined 43. Local 43 had about 1800 members and they were in the red. But our founders had made sure that we’d always have possession of the Musicians Club. The club had title to the building and a charter from the State of New York.”

Part of the merger deal—mandated by the national AFM—was that four members of 533 would hold seats on the board of the new integrated local, which used 533’s treasury to pay off its old debts. Black local members lost their life membership and half of their life insurance benefits. Local 43 members lost their old number. Since open elections resumed in 1974, no black member of Local 92 has ever become an officer of the union. Despite the presumably good intentions of the AFM, the merger seemed to drive Buffalo’s musicians further apart. But out in the jazz trenches, things were looking up.

After four years in the Marine Corps Band as part of a quartet assigned to the White House (with Buffalo guys Nick Molfese, bass, and Justin DiCioccio, drums), saxophonist Phil DiRé returned to Buffalo and resumed playing with pianist Johnny Gibson, his old bandmate from the Billboard, a strip joint located at the present site of the downtown baseball park. In 1972, DiRé formed the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble with Gibson, Molfese, saxophonist Tony Carere, and drummer Maurice Sinclair. By creating a non-profit sponsoring organization—the Association for Jazz Performance—DiRé was able to apply for and receive funding from city, state, and federal sources. Through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) and the National Endowment for the Arts, he formed a working, salaried musical organization in much the same way that the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was created with funds from the WPA in the late thirties. Members of the BJE reported for work each day to compose, arrange, and rehearse at the Delaware Casino and other locations, then presented concerts at schools, libraries, community centers, at the Delaware Park Rose Garden, and on the steps of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on summer Sunday afternoons. Currently sponsored by the city’s only surviving daily newspaper, the early gallery concerts were an instant hit with the citizenry but, like the Newport Jazz Festival, viewed askance from the corridors of power.

“The News used to pan us,” says one former member of the BJE. “The art gallery really didn’t like it because they had a big mess out there. The parks department didn’t like it because they had to clean it up. The cops didn’t like it because they had to work on Sunday. The neighbors who lived next door with all the money didn’t like it. But Mayor Stanley Makowski loved it. We called it Stan’s Band.”

Since 1972, nearly every important jazz musician in Buffalo has been a member of the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble. When Johnny Gibson got busy with trumpeter Georgie Holt at the Anchor Bar, Al Tinney took over the piano chair. Tinney, the consummate modernist and driving force of the historic sessions at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem in the forties, came to Buffalo to get out of music and sell shoes. After exploring that career option for one day, Tinney thankfully decided to share his great talent, formidable intelligence, estimable wit, and big heart with the musicians and listeners of his adopted city for the rest of his life.

In 1976, Phil DiRé turned the Buffalo Jazz Ensemble over to Sam Falzone and left for a West Coast gig as music director and sideman for singer Keely Smith. In just four years he had achieved a great deal, including the creation of Buffalo’s first and only publicly funded and racially integrated jazz ensemble comprised of many of the city’s finest musical artists. It was a band that nurtured two other important groups—Birthright and Spyro Gyra—and took the music out into the community, presenting concerts and workshops in places jazz had never been heard before. New venues also appeared in the seventies as Ed Lawson opened the original Tralfamadore Café and Bill Hassett began presenting jazz at the Statler Hotel, then produced the Artpark Jazz Festival. In the nineties, Bobby Militello took over the Tralf and Mark Goldman opened the Calumet Arts Café, presenting both local and national jazz artists. Dan Hull brought his concept for showcasing the astonishing wealth of area jazz talent every Tuesday night to Bobby McGee’s, while Bruce Eaton and Steve Baczkowski established important concert series at the Albright-Knox and Hallwalls, respectively. Meanwhile, as jazz joints come and go, the Anchor Bar, nationally famous for its cuisine, has another cultural distinction at least as important in its continuous presentation of jazz every weekend since sometime during the Roosevelt Administration.

Jazz occupied a brief moment center stage in American culture. The days of jazz on every corner in a vibrant black community—when famous bands played regularly in every whistle stop, when a hot young local player could impress a celebrity bandleader and be asked to fill in for an ailing sideman and then be offered a gig on the road—have gone the way of actors being discovered at Hollywood drugstore counters. American movies and jazz defined American society to the world in the first half of the twentieth century. But jazz became an art form and movies became a commercial product. (Does anyone in America make art movies anymore?) Yet most jazz artists continue to scuffle simply for the love of the music and the thrill of performing it. When someone recently inquired about former BJE saxophonist and McCoy Tyner sideman Joe Ford, the answer was he’s still in New York, playing great, and hasn’t sold out. Which is not the same thing as saying commercial success in jazz isn’t cool. It just isn’t as important as the music. Relegated to a place in the wings, jazz continues to astonish and inspire—and I, for one, am happy to be in Buffalo, still knocked out by some of the best music to be heard anywhere.

Phil Nyhuis is a writer and former house pianist at Murphy’s Omega café.


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