The Musicians’ Union Banned Jam Sessions

From a 1964 interview with trumpeter Buck Clayton, we learn that the musicians’ union banned jam sessions ca 1930s or 1940s. “Looking back on his formative years, [Buck] Clayton fondly remembered the jam sessions in Kansas City, ‘just three hours away from Parson.’ ‘We used to have jam sessions every day,’ he said. ‘There were so many bands to hear, and we idolized them. There were so many clubs, so many musicians, and we were like brothers.’ He said he feels fortunate that he grew up in the time of the jam sessions ‘We always used to try and practice and improve,’ he said and then added ruefully, ‘until the union banned all sessions. I think that’s another thing that has hurt young musicians. No more free playing. I remember sessions in N.Y. with Hawk, Lester and Don Byas, who sit for hours and battle each other. And ROY ELDRIDGE and HENRY (RED) ALLEN, who would just sit-and drink and blow.'”

The powerful union went much further. Union chief James Caesar Petrillo in 1942-1944 “called a ban on all commercial recordings, as part of a struggle to get royalties from record sales for a union fund for out-of-work musicians.”

To circumvent the strike, which was aimed at the large record companies, many newer, smaller independents started up and sought out musicians not under contract to the majors.

Another source mentions the anti-jam session union attitude in New York: “The majority of these after-hour jam sessions occurred in Harlem, New York City. One of the most influential jam session occurred at Minton’s Playhouse located at 210 West 118th Street, New York City. It was owned by a tenor saxophonist by the name of Henry Minton, who was also the first black delegate of the Musicians Union in New York City. Unlike today, almost all working, and non-working, musicians had ties to the Musician’s Union, also known as the American Federation of Musicians. During this period of American music, the Union frowned upon jam sessions and fined any Union musicians associated with them. One of the reasons for this was that royalties and performance fees from clubs could not be collected at these informal gatherings. Because Henry Minton was a delegate for the Union, he was able to ensure that musicians would not get in trouble for having jam sessions at his club.”

Personally, I worked as a non-union musician in high school and college. In order to play in a band (“Sanford Mill Band”) that gave summer concerts on bandstands, I had to join the union, however. That band used a library of light orchestra arrangements owned by Everett “Pappy” Firth, whose son, Vic Firth, was tympanist with the Boston Symphony. He became famous for producing top-notch percussion instruments. The Firths were Sanford people. Calvin Torry and I doubled the lead trumpet part. He later joined the Portland Symphony Orchestra.


4:10 pm on December 13, 2018