Clef Club
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Philly native Don Gardner was still a teenager in the 1940s when he started singing in nightclubs. Gardner says it was the same routine every night. Because he was underage, but looked old enough...he'd go in, sing, and go right back out. Gardner says he wasn't there for the liquor, but for the music.

Background music by Gardner

Don Gardner:

"You could just walk down Columbia Avenue and the music would be coming out of one place and out of another place and you'd just go from bar to bar. You go over to Café Society, you hear a set, you run up to the Zanzibar, you hear a set, you go down to Pitts, you hear a set...if you're out for the evening and that's what you did."

Gardner says Local 274, the black musicians local, was one of the hubs of the Philadelphia music scene. When he started his first band, The Three Bachelors, they might work a night session...finishing up at 2 in the morning. But the night wasn't over...Gardner says they'd often head to Local 274's union hall on Broad Street:

"You could go there any weekend, whoever was in town ended up at the Union when they got eat chicken and talk stuff. Duke Ellington might come and sit-in, Basie; anybody's in town would go in there and they'd be singing, playing whatever...but that was the excitement of it."

Background music by Duke Ellington

Local 274 started in 1935, when the city's white musicians union, Local 77 barred black musicians from joining. Both unions were part of the larger American Federation of Musicians. Diane Turner is a curator at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and wrote her doctoral thesis on Local 274. She says black musicians around the country started their own locals to promote their interests and attract higher paying opportunities:

"The unions functioned not only as unions, but as a places to socialize, musicians could exchange ideas, and for the most part, if you look at the black locals, they were more democratic than the white locals, because the black locals didn't exclude other ethnic groups."

When Don Gardner joined the union in the mid-1950s, he says there were over a dozen white members. Regardless of race, he says, everyone was welcome to go down to the union and join the party:

"But you know what a party is...when people get together and play music. They play what they wanted. The way they wanted to. See when you go and play in front of gotta give the people what they're looking for...when you play out with the kats you do what you want to do and to hell with the people...cause ain't nobody paying you anyhow so you do whatever you want to do."

Ironically, the success of the Civil Rights movement marked the end for independent black unions like Local 274. Civil Rights leaders targeted the American Federation of Musicians as the most segregated union in the nation. Turner says the AFM conceded, and moved to integrate more than 50 independent black unions nationwide into existing white locals. But Turner says often the black rank and file weren't consulted – and problems arose as locals combined:

"So once they're submerged, then their special interests weren't represented anymore and they lost jobs also because then the white musicians were playing the black music."

Turner says 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."

The Philadelphia Clef Club of the Performing Arts opened in 1966 as the Local's social arm...and the owner of its assets. The AFM ultimately revoked Local 274's charter – but not until 1971, making it the last independent black musicians union in the country.

In 1995, the Clef Club moved to its current location on Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts. Don Gardner is now the facilities manager at the Clef Club:

"It's continuing what was started. It's changed somewhat because the times have've got to change with the times. But the main focus is still the music."

Gardner says when he was coming up in the music business older musicians from the union gave him advice about what to do. That's how you learned, he says, and the Clef Club preserves that spirit.
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