“Here” was the Douglass Hotel.
Tag Archives: Billie Holiday
Union Local 274
Founded in 1935, Union Local 274 was the second largest black American Federation of Musicians local. Black musicians were barred from the then-segregated Local 77.
Local 274 members included James Adams, Bill “Mr. C” Carney, Trudy Pitts, Duke Ellington, Benny Golson, Count Basie, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Shirley Scott, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Jimmy Oliver, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Bill Doggett, Jimmy McGriff and Nina Simone. The Clef Club, its social arm, was the place for weekend jam sessions. The bar and performance space was open to jazz musicians and enthusiasts.
In his autobiography, I Was Not Asked, noted educator and music scholar Dr. George E. Allen wrote:
Many Philadelphia African American jazz musicians attributed their success to the atmosphere and fellowship at Black Local 274. For aspiring musicians, the Local was a training ground for developing their reputation and experimenting with new musical concepts. Local 274 was also a place where African American musicians sought refuge from racial prejudice and discrimination. In the union club during the jam sessions, musicians were encouraged to pursue musical careers through the applause of grassroots Philadelphia African Americans who loved and respected them and the visiting jazz musicians who were playing in the local clubs. Many members of Local 274 joined because of these benefits. The atmosphere inspired both African American and white musicians. They learned by listening to the music performed at the Union and socializing with the many musicians who congregated there.
Local 274 resisted forced amalgamation, or integration, with Local 77. As a result, the American Federation of Musicians cancelled its charter in 1971. But the story didn’t end there. Historian and archivist Diane Turner wrote her dissertation on Local 274. In an interview with ExplorePA.com, Dr. Turner said:
Local 274 saw what was happening to other black Locals and refused to join 77. But she says Jimmy Adams…the local’s president at the time…realized a merger might be unavoidable:
Do we want 77 to have control over what we built? It took us years to build through dues, our property and so forth. So he came up with the idea to start a cultural wing of Local 274 and incorporate it, and transfer all of their assets and property into the Philadelphia Clef Club.
In 1966, Adams incorporated the Philadelphia Clef Club. All Local 274 assets, including the union hall were transferred for $1.00.
The Philadelphia Clef Club for Jazz and the Performing Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Morton Emerson opened Emerson’s in 1934. The nightspot was listed in The Negro Motorist Travel Guide. According to The John Coltrane Reference, John Coltrane and Percy Heath stopped by Emerson’s to see saxophonist Lester Young on June 17, 1948.
Billie Holiday’s gig at the South Philly jazz club on March 14, 1959 — four months before her death — is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
Also known as Emerson’s Café and Emerson’s Sunset Grille, Emerson’s closed circa 1960.
The Hunting of Billie Holiday
In a new book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” Johann Hari writes how Billie Holiday was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after she refused to be silent about racism:
One night, in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang a song that was unlike anything anyone had heard before. ‘Strange Fruit’ was a musical lament against lynching. It imagined black bodies hanging from trees as a dark fruit native to the South. Here was a black woman, before a mixed audience, grieving for the racist murders in the United States. Immediately after, Billie Holiday received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Harry had heard whispers that she was using heroin, and—after she flatly refused to be silent about racism—he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer. His job was to bust his own people, but Anslinger was insistent that no black man in his Bureau could ever become a white man’s boss. Jimmy was allowed through the door at the Bureau, but never up the stairs. He was and would remain an “archive man”—a street agent whose job was to figure out who was selling, who was supplying and who should be busted. He would carry large amounts of drugs with him, and he was allowed to deal drugs himself so he could gain the confidence of the people he was secretly plotting to arrest.
Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.
Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who pegged her with her now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” When Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment of her time. In the 1930s, when Holiday was working with Columbia Records, she was first introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit,” an emotional piece about the lynching of a black man. Though Columbia would not allow her to record the piece due to subject matter, Holiday went on to record the song with an alternate label, Commodore, and the song eventually became one of Holiday’s classics.