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Race, Gender, Jazz & Local 493: Black Women Musicians in Seattle: 1920-1955

During its brief and rocky tenure from 1918 to 1924, pianist Gertrude Harvey Wright was one of four women in Seattle’s first black musicians’ union, the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 458.  Wright,  Virginia Hughes, a “Mrs. Austin,” and (Edythe) “Turnham,” all worked with their male counterparts at union headquarters and on the bandstand.   After the demise of short-lived Local 458, they next joined and helped run Seattle’s follow-up segregated union, Local 493. This institution flourished from 1924 to 1958, launched a number of prominent musicians, both women and men, and helped establish Seattle’s impact and credentials on the national and international jazz scene.  

At that time when jazz was identified with men and particularly African American men, these female  musicians  helped keep jazz alive in the Pacific Northwest from the World War I era to the 1950s.  As musicians and leaders, they worked within a complicated Jim Crow union system, paving the way for future female musicians.  

A young black man, tuba-playing Powell Barnett starts off this story.   Barnett and a small group of African American men and women banded together and chartered AFM Local 458 August 9, 1918.   Five years earlier in 1913 Barnett joined the white Local 76 Musicians’ Union taking advantage of its 1893 charter for “all instrumental performers.”  This opportunity came when Barnett worked from 1909 to 1914 in the all-white Volunteers of America Marching Band, which brought him into the white American Federation of Musicians’ Local 76 in December of 1913.  Barnett then tried to convince other black musicians to join Local 76, reasoning that “half a loaf was better than none.”    However, others would not join under segregated work rules which kept black women and men underpaid in a two-tiered system, and forbade them from socializing at the union hall.  Black musicians were also denied entry into the lucrative downtown, public parks, radio, hotel, and orchestral music markets.  Balkanized into territory around Jackson

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