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The New York AFM


Susie and I were trying to figure out how I could make a living playing my guitar. On at least a couple of occasions, I had been told I couldn’t play somewhere in New York because I didn’t belong to the union. Susie and decided I should join the union. I went down to the AFM building and there was a big bunch of paperwork to fill out, fees to pay, and there was a waiting list. In addition, I intuitively thought the fact that I could not sight read music; in fact couldn’t really even follow a chord accompaniment if I didn’t know the song, and I didn’t know that many songs except for my own. If they were weeding people out, I wasn’t sure of my chances of getting in. But Susie’s family knew some guy in New York, who was “on the family payroll”, who they said could hook us up.

     He hooked us up all right. My next trip to the union with Susie, we walked past the long line, straight up to a special window, where we were ushered into an office and I signed a few papers. Some of the fees were overlooked, and I became an official member of the New York American Federation of Musicians. 

     I went to the union hall every day for a while there, hanging out with a bunch of other guys waiting as each announcement came over the microphone. This old dumpy, union-y bald guy with barely a voice would call out “Two tenor saxophones……wait (papers shuffling)…one tenor sax and…..(confers with another old dumpy, union-y bald guy, by the way, they both look gray and sunlight deprived)….one alto saxophone and one baritone saxophone.”

     We’re all trying to figure out what he said, a few tenor players would go and sit back down shaking their heads, and wait for the next announcement. “Accordion player!” “Piccolo player”.

After a few days, I started hanging out with this drummer who would show up. One day the call finally came over the microphone “Guitar, bass and drums”. It was my first union gig! We were given an address, which was an outdoor stage in a park. This black sax player was the bandleader. I asked him what we were going to be playing. No time for that. He calls out to the bass player and me “play E!”. The improvisation that followed was pretty chaotic, but, who knows, maybe it was perceived to be better than I thought by the 20 or so people who attended the event. Whatever, I would get a paycheck at union scale in a few weeks.

    I talked with the drummer about getting together (with someone other than the bass player we played with at the gig), but it never happened. I soon tired of going down to the union hall. We moved to Florida within a few months.

    I transferred to the Florida AFM in St. Pete. One day, after I played a gig and the club owner wouldn’t pay, ( a union club), I called the union. “What do you expect us to do about it?” the union rep asked. I don’t know what happened to my union cards. Maybe they got lost when we moved.

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