Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz) As many other form of unionised work, the musician union was born in the 1920s. Rather than a nationwide organisation, every city had their own, with its own characteristics.
Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz) Born in the 1920sm jazz unions weren't a nationwide organisation. Every city had their own, with its own characteristics. Click To Tweet
U - Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 - Jazz Age Jazz)

The 1910s and 1920s was the time when the first timid attempts to unionise workers took place. Unions tried to unite workers to give them the power of numbers against employers, but they also tried to put rules on workers’ behaviour. And because they enforced regulations and standardisation, unions also tried to apply sanctions when rules were not met.

These first attempts had varied results and generally quite a hard time. Most unions were segregated, which made thing even harder. Therefore many workers (especially African Americans) refused to enter unions on this ground.

The American Federation of Musicians (the musicians’ union) presented many ‘locals’ designated with a number. Locals had all a very distinctive life based on regional situations.

Two of the most important were located in the two major cities where jazz was played.

An originator of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington was an American composer, pianist and bandleader who composed thousands of scores over his 50-year career.
Duke Ellington

New York City – Local 802

New York Local 802 was unique in that it exhibited a great degree of tolerance to internal division. A great variety of ethnic interests and groups coexisted more or less peacefully. There were Irish and Jewish organisations, but also flautist organisations. Ethnic minorities and instrumental minorities could retain their identity and voice and still belong to the union.

This allowed individual musicians sometimes to maintain separate commitments while still being part of the union.

Chicago – Local 208

In Chicago, New Orleans musicians, who were a majority of jazzmen, seemed to be largely uninterested in the union. Despite the union guaranteed higher incomes, black performers worked in a community where segregation significantly circumscribed employment and attitudes toward black entertainment.

The management of Local 208 was also heavily influenced by the music ideals of a Defender columnist, Dave Peyton. He upheld an idea of proper music that was more adherent to the classic European standard, and although he was not a union man, his views appear to have had a great influence on the Local’s attitude toward music. The union had authority in finding jobs, so jazzmen ended up being penalised on this ground. This was probably why many Chicago jazzmen never cared to join the union.


Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

Associated Musicians of Greater New York – Local 802 at the time of the Harlem Renaissance
Black Past – Race, Gender, Jazz & Local 493: Black Women Musicians in Seattle 1920-1955


  • Barbara In Caneyhead
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 04:01

    Overall, unions gave us all the benefits we take for granted everyday in the work force. But any time change comes, there are some who get trampled or overlooked in the change. I dated a drummer in the early 80’s who belonged to the musicians union.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 07:29

      That kind of change sure was hard to produce.

  • KristinKingAuthor
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 07:52

    I tend to think of factories when thinking of unions, so your post is interesting as I consider how early the impact of unions began on art and performance as well.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 25, 2016 at 07:54

      As I understand it, unions really start to work with the New Deal, but they actually started off a bit earlier 🙂

  • Zeljka
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:49

    Unions generally cannot maintain in keeping all members satisfied, regardless of the subject. The song is great, as always, there is something special to hear a tune from vinyl even if it is a recorded one 🙂

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:28

      From what I read about the Twneties and the New Deal in general, unions had a very hard time at the beginning, and I think that part of this depended on the fact that while in theory they were desined to protect all workers, in reality there was a lot of division inside them.
      My impression, anyway…

  • Tasha
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 10:10

    Such a shame that something that was designed to help musicians could also look down on a whole section of the music making community. New York seemed to have the better idea in that is allowed everyone to come together as a whole, but had divisions internally.
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:25

      From what I read, a lot depended on the environment and also on the people involved with the union.
      It’s particularly sad that jazzmen were practically discriminated against twice. That speaks of what a hard time jazz was having in general.

  • Kathleen Valentine
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 14:54

    I guess I never realized that early unions were segregated! I know that unions made life a lot better for most workers but had no idea about that particular aspect.

    Meet My Imaginary Friends

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:36

      Segregation inside unions started to be addressed during the New Deal, but it was a few decades before all workers were really considered equal. And because of segregation, especially in the earlier times, many workers didn’t join.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 13:12

    Huh. I guess it makes sense, but I never thought about musicians’ unions before… Than you! 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:29

      LOL! Why not? Musicians are also workers 😉

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 14:16

    Sometimes people who initially mean well can end up being restrictive. There are times when folks need to realise what is an opinion and what is a standard. Sounds like New York got it more right than Chicago, allowing the creative divisions while still recognising that everyone was there for the music.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:33

      I think the problems of division the musicians’ unions had were the same all unions had at that time. A lot of people were not welcome inside unions: African Americans, women, immigrants… children were workers but were never taken into consideration.
      Unions started to become more universal and more effective during the New Deal, but in the Twenties they were still very experimental… and not really universal.

  • Jeffrey Scott
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 16:43

    Unions can be a slippery-slope. I work for a company that is non-union. Problem is, certain companies will only hire union contractors. Even if the union contractor is less qualified.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:39

      I’m under the impression that in the very earlier times of unions (an that was definitelly the 1920s) unions worked more on the side of workers than in collaboration with employers.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 16:47

    This post was truly enlightening. Never thought that there would be unions in music industry and that they existed that early! Amazing!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:41

      The musicians’ union, as all unions, in the USA started in the 1920s. It is indeed very early 🙂

  • Stephanie
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 19:30

    Unions in large cities were so much more powerful and beneficial than in our “small town”. When my father passed in 1986 my mother received Whoppin’ $50 from daddy’s Local. Truly uneven indeed!
    Stephanie Finnell
    @randallbychance from
    Katy Trail Creations
    Stephanies Stuff

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:44

      I suppose so. Besides, I think in big cities there were (and are) more musicians and more jobs.

  • Megan Morgan
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 19:18

    Musician’s unions! I didn’t even know such things existed. I’m glad there’s something place to protect creative people.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 26, 2016 at 15:42

      Yeah, well. In the 1920s, it wasn’t always clear who and what they were protecting… but of course they had to start somewhere 😉

  • Claire Noland
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 16:35

    So interesting. Are these unions still active today?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 27, 2016 at 07:21

      Yes, they are. At least, most of them, as I understand it.
      The “Associated Musicians of Greater New York” that I referenced above is NY Local 802 official website 🙂

Leave a comment