Discordant compositions

Clubs in San Francisco's Fillmore district (shown in white) provided work to black musicians during the 1950s, following earlier territorial scuffles between the black and white musicians' unions. Professor emerita of music Leta Miller uncovered the details of this history through her research into the widespread segregation in the unions that persisted into the 1970s in some U.S. cities. Credit: Courtesy of Leta Miller.

Poets consider music to be humankind’s universal language. But deep divides of race and income at times split its makers—at least those who were members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM)—in the early 20th century. Leta Miller, professor emerita of music, discovered a piece of this troubled past in San Francisco’s history, where black and white musicians formed separate, competing union local chapters.

Jazz drummer Earl Watkins represented the black musicians during merger discussions when state laws forced the separate black and white union local chapters in San Francisco to join together in 1960. Credit: Courtesy of Leta Miller.

The conflict in San Francisco came to a head in 1934 when the black Local 648 sued their white counterpart, Local 6, for attempting to control all gigs. State laws eventually forced the two to merge in 1960. But Miller found that similarly segregated union locals were commonplace across dozens of U.S. cities—and some even persisted into the early 1970s. “I was quite astonished at how many there were,” Miller said.

Supported by a 2019–2020 Dickson Emeriti professorship, Miller is now working on a book about segregation in musicians’ unions across the nation. While the separation was no doubt rooted in racism, black musicians in many cases actually chose to form their own locals. Miller found that, apart from promoting identity and community, doing so allowed them to set their own rates—sometimes undercutting the white competition. Each local also garnered a seat at the AFM national convention, so “having their own local ensured that black musicians were guaranteed a voice at the meeting,” Miller said. “That was probably very important.”

Jyoti Madhusoodanan