Beginning in 1950, Buddy Collette helped organize what became a three-year effort to merge the two locals of the American Federation of Musicians--one black, one white--in Los Angeles. The move had an enormous impact on the careers of musicians vying for jobs in the movie and television industries.
I had been a member of the musicians union since I was 16 or 17. The black local, 767, was on Central Avenue at 17th Street and the white local, 47, was on Georgia Street, near Figueroa. Local 47 moved to its current location on Vine Street in Hollywood in 1947 or 1948. It was a fabulous building and it was really stunning to see a union like that. Of course, we knew about it, but hadn't visited it, because it was only for whites. You could walk in if you wanted, but they'd say, "Who are you looking for? You have to go over to the other union."
When I was in the Navy, they were trying to integrate the services. But even at the base where we were in Northern California, [there] was an all-black band and the cadets were all white. At that time it didn't bother us, because that's the way life was. When I got back home, I started thinking this should not be, that it would also hinder our future development because of the things we were stuck with: our old union building on Central Avenue, where the foundation of the building was uneven and the pianos were out of tune.
We thought about it, especially those of us who had been in the service, and [Charles] Mingus, who hadn't been in the military. We kept thinking, "Man, we'll never make it with two unions, because we're getting the leftovers." All the calls came to Local 47. Now and then they might want a black band for a sideline call, where the music had been recorded by the white band and they wanted to show a black group. We'd all jump on it, of course, because it was more money than you could make in a club. For a day you'd make $50 and in a club you could probably only make about $10. Some days you might even wind up making $100. That was a lot of money, but that may not happen for another year or two.
At Local 47 that was happening all the time. I knew it was, because I was around those guys. I'd go to "The Jack Smith Show" with Barney Kessel and some guys at other shows. They'd be working radio shows and pulling down $200 or $300 a week. That wasn't going to get better for us with the two unions and that was a real shaft.
(Collette and Mingus organized the Community Symphony Orchestra that fielded white and black musicians, helping black union members learn more about symphonic music and demonstrating that the musicians could play together. They lobbied union members and officials, circulated petitions, worked with political leaders and made their case in the news media.)
The more we pushed, the more we began to pick up people. Later, a lot of white musicians changed their minds. We found out that a lot of them didn't know there were two unions. At this point we had all the publicity and people were doing fine but still didn't know how to go beyond that. We realized the next thing would be electing officers to our local leadership to move it ahead. Our officers in 767 were opposed to it. We didn't have much, but they thought at least it was still ours.
When a fight takes a long time like that, of course you're not getting help from all sides. But the more the question was asked, "Is it a racial thing or what is it?" They had to say, "Well, no, it's not that. We just don't know what to call it or how to do it or we can't because it's never been done before and . . ." So the big stall goes. The unions that were together, like New York Local 802, were that way in the beginning.
It took about three years, but we brought the unions together in April 1953. Looking back, the amalgamation helped a lot of musicians, gave them a better picture of what they had to do to look beyond the Central Avenue-type jobs. It began to make better players out of the good players, and the ones who weren't doing it had to decide to either back away or get serious.
Some later periods--the 1960s and 1970s--became very lucrative for a lot of black musicians, who began doing recordings and shows like "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Danny Kaye Show," "The Flip Wilson Show." Those shows began to hire people because they were in the same union and the word got around who could play, and who couldn't. The other way we were isolated.
During the union amalgamation struggle Jerry Fielding came to one of the rehearsals of the Community Symphony Orchestra. I knew his name because he was a composer and had gotten the job as musical director of the Groucho Marx show, "You Bet Your Life," as well as "The Life of Riley."