Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Union (Jazz Age Jazz Series) The life of musicianunions were very different depending on the city. In some city they forwarded jazz (New York), in other they hindered it (Chicago)

Jazz Age Jazz - Union

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - Union #AtoZChallenge In the #1920s the first attempts at unionising jazz musicians Click To Tweet

U - Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016)

The 1910s and 1920s was the time when the first timid attempts to unionise workers took place. Unions tried to unite workers so to give them the power of numbers against employers, but they also tried to put rules on workers’ behaviour. And because they enforced rules and standardisation, unions also tried to apply sanctions when rules were not met.
These first attempts had very varied results and generally quite a hard time. This was made worst by the fact that most unions were segregated, so many workers (especially African Americans) refused to enter unions on this ground.

The American Federation of Musicians (the musicians’ union) was organised in 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 foremost cities where jazz was played.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

New York City – Local 802

New York Local 802 was quite 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 flutist organisations. Ethnic minorities and instrumental minorities could retain their identity and voice and still belong to the union.

This allowed to individual musicians to sometimes 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 greatly circumscribed employment and attitudes toward black entertainment.

The management of Local 208 was also heavily influence by the music ideals of a Defender columnist, Dave Peyton. He upheld an idea of proper music that was more adherent to the European classic standard and although he was not a union man, his ideas appear to have had 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


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I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

24 Comments on "Union (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. 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.
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…Tender Years: Tonto & the Lone RangerMy Profile

  2. 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.

  3. 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 🙂
    Zeljka recently posted…Ustka, PolandMy Profile

    • 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…

  4. 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)
    Tasha recently posted…U – Sir George Uproar – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • 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.

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

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
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    Tarkabarka recently posted…U is for Unexpected pregnanciesMy Profile

  6. 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
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – U is for Urgent – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • 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.

  7. 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.

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    Kathleen Valentine recently posted…U is for Ulysses: Blogging the #AtoZchallengeMy Profile

    • 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.

  8. 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.
    Jeffrey Scott recently posted…Nostalgia TV – UMy Profile

    • 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.

  9. This post was truly enlightening. Never thought that there would be unions in music industry and that they existed that early! Amazing!
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Unconditional#AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  10. 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
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  11. Musician’s unions! I didn’t even know such things existed. I’m glad there’s something place to protect creative people.
    Megan Morgan recently posted…U – UnderstatementMy Profile

  12. So interesting. Are these unions still active today?

    • 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 🙂

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