100th Anniversary Celebrates Pittsburgh's Jazz Roots

International Musician, April 2008 | Go to article overview
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100th Anniversary Celebrates Pittsburgh's Jazz Roots


The AFM local that represented Pittsburgh's African-American musicians celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA) plans to honor the legacy of the organization that claimed many great jazz musicians among its members.

The Pittsburgh African American Musicians' Association began in 1906 and then received its charter from the AFM in 1908. It operated separately from Local 60 until a merger in 1965 as part of the AFL-CIO desegregation policy. Through the clubs and venues it operated, and the notable musicians in its rank, Local 471 defined the jazz scene in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a traditionally African-American neighborhood east of the city's downtown.

Charles Austin, a life member of Local 60-471 and a member of Local 471 from 1947 until the merger in 1965, continues to uphold the traditions of those musicians and their heritage as a member of Local 60-471's executive board. "When I joined, I was privileged," he says. "It was a thrill to belong to this organization." He remained a member following the merger because of his association with John E. "Jack" Purcell, a musician, contractor and member of Local 60-471. During the time of segregated locals, Austin says Purcell helped him find work playing "comfy clubs and society shows" and continued to help in securing contracts after the merger.

"Thank heaven for him," Austin says. "Because of him, I'm collecting a pension."

Austin has been involved in preserving and retelling the history of Pittsburgh's jazz scene through the formation of the African-American Jazz Preservation Society. Inspired by the book Jackson Street After Hours, a story of African-American jazz musicians in Seattle, Austin has been at work on a book to retell a similar story of Pittsburgh.

Few original members of Local 471 still live in Pittsburgh, and even fewer retained their membership following the 1965 merger. Nevertheless, Austin has worked to preserve their recollections of musical life in Pittsburgh during its most fertile period, when many notable musicians, including George Benson of Local 802 (New York City) and the late Stanley Turrentine, Art Blakey, and Ray Brown were starting their careers in their hometown of Pittsburgh.

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