Union blues: What will become of the Musicians Building? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Union blues: What will become of the Musicians Building?


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At first glance, 5320-26 S. Drexel looks like any other courtyard building on the western edge of Hyde Park. Windows of a first-floor apartment are boarded up, the result of a recent fire. Some of the doorways show need of a paint job, others display peeling plaster. Hastily scribbled names adorn some mailboxes, one sign of a transient population.

But a more careful examination shows that this is not just any apartment house. Some of the mailbox listings give a clue: "Evad Mazek: pianist, composer, producer"; "Art Ensemble of Chicago"; "Clockwork Music."

It isn't the sights but the sounds that reveal most. At any hour a visitor might pick up the soft tone of a sax wailing from one of the flats, a piano jiving from another, a singer exercising his or her voice.

Music is the signature of this place, which is a one-of-a-kind Chicago institution. Little known by north-side whites, the Musicians Building has been a south-side cultural landmark for more than 35 years. But it may not remain what it is much longer. Chicago Federation of Musicians Local 10-208, which owns the building, is seeking to put it up for sale.

"For many years, the property we own, located at 5320-26 S. Drexel, has been a drain on the Union's resources. The income from rentals has barely covered the operational costs for the past several years. The past two years, we have in fact lost money, and it appears as if this trend will continue," stated the union's newsletter, Intermezzo, last month.

"The Building is in need of extensive renovation and rehabilitation. Vandalism and a recent fire have added to our problems. It is the unanimous opinion of your officers and Board of Directors to recommend the sale of the property. We feel that this would be in the best interests of the tenants and the membership in general."

If the union's directors feel that the building's sale is what's best for the tenants, the tenants hold a considerably different view. Representatives of a recently created tenants' council object to the proposed sale, the method of referendum by which the union membership would approve a sale, the claims that the building drains the union's finances, and the present upkeep of the building.

First, a little background.

Musicians Local 208, which then was all black, bought the Drexel building in 1952. "The idea was to take pressure off musicians by keeping them from worrying about excessive rents," according to vibes player Emanuel Crenshaw, a longtime resident.

"When we first moved in, the building was 40 percent white and 60 percent black. Some of the whites moved out right away," recalled Dave Young, a sax and clarinet player with the Ink Spots and now advertising manager of the Chicago Defender. "But right away we put in a new roof and furnace, tuck-pointed, and sandblasted. When the residents saw the work we were doing, they wanted to stay. They couldn't, because we only allowed union members."

The building was a godsend to the musicians who moved in. Young commented, "A musician can work all his life and not be anywhere for longer than six weeks. If you stayed eight weeks at one spot, it was a miracle. But at the Musicians Building, I got five rooms for $95. It would have been $150 anywhere else."

The idea of a building only for music makers might invite images of all-night parties, painted women, reefer madness. That wasn't the case, said former union official Hillard Brown, a drummer with Duke Ellington. "You had some very nice families, people on the responsible side. They were qualified, good musicians. I never heard any grief from their neighbors."

"In one sense, the Musicians Building is not particularly communal. You don't work together just because you live in the same building," noted Crenshaw. "But there is a commonality of interest. It's nice to be able to practice your art and not get a lot of resistance."

"It has served as a tremendous help to many gifted musicians, some well known, others up-and-coming, but all commonly in need of a modest place to live and practice," added tenants' council president Ron Roseboro. "It's very refreshing to wake up to jazz, or hear a singer's voice and know that the neighbors won't complain because they are also musicians."

By most accounts, the building was well maintained while Local 208 controlled it. But 208 merged with white Local 10 in 1966.

"The federal government said that the musicians' union was the most segregated in the country and strongly suggested mergers," remembered Rozelle Claxton, a piano player who recently moved out of the Drexel apartment house. "Big spots like the Chez Paree and the Palmer House were exclusively Local 10 country. We could only get one-night stands there. We in 208 joined Local 10 because we wanted increased bookings."

Tenants claim that under Local 10-208, the building has deteriorated. In April a council finally was organized to seek improvements. Among the problems the new council cited were: vestibule doors that didn't lock; a leaky roof; a lack of fire extinguishers; "uneconomical heating due to rotten wood and shaky, loose-fitting windows"; banisters and steps that were loose or missing; hallway carpets that had never been cleaned or vacuumed; hallways that "haven't been painted in 15 years." Tenants believe a May 6 fire that forced three residents from their apartments might have been started by an arsonist entering the basement through a door that was never locked. Many residents say the management company that runs the building for the union is unresponsive.

Tenants wonder how the union can be losing money on the building. They claim it produces $78,000 in rents every year, yet little money goes into its upkeep. "Rents have gone up 50 percent in the last five years," noted bass player Eddie Calhoun. "I wouldn't mind those increases if there were results, but there aren't. They claim utilities eat up costs, but that's a lie. Here people pay their own gas and light."

But the immediate concern is that the union will sell the building to developers, who will rehab it and raise rents to a level that will drive the musicians out.

The tenants' council sent a letter May 4 to Local 10-208 president Charles Guse, expressing their reservations about a sale. Tenants' representatives showed up to speak at a May 7 board of directors meeting. Nonetheless, in the June Intermezzo union officials recommended selling the building and announced a referendum of the membership. The referendum to authorize the sale is being conducted by mail, in accord with union bylaws. Ballots were sent out last week and will be counted July 10, according to Local 10-208 treasurer Ed Ward.

Tenants have complained that the union is trying to rush the sale without giving them a chance to mount a campaign against it. They say they tried to present their side of the argument in the June Intermezzo but were prohibited from doing so, and that a general membership meeting scheduled for June 9 was postponed when union officials saw how many tenants intended to speak. (Officers say the meeting was called off because so few members showed up.)

"[The union] is doing things backwards," said Crenshaw. "They should have a meeting to discuss the sale, then hold the referendum."

Ed Ward denies that the union is making any attempt to freeze out the tenants. "Their letter to Intermezzo came after the last issue went to press. We ran it by our lawyers, and they told us we were not obligated to print it."

He also noted that only three tenants' council members showed up at the May board meeting. Roseboro countered, "They are trying to claim that we who attended the meeting were an unsatisfied minority of the tenants, but 24 of the 27 residents signed the tenants' council petition."

Although the council has not accused anyone of racism, individual members contend the dispute has its racial aspects. "The union members are mainly white classical musicians. If a member lives in Morton Grove or whatever, he doesn't know of the Musicians Building. But on the south side, everyone knows of it," said a bass player who requested anonymity. "The union's board of directors has no black representatives. But the Musicians Building houses mainly black jazz and blues musicians. There is nobody there to represent our interests."

The bass player further noted, "The union did not mention that this is an occupied building. No one reading the newsletter would know it houses musicians."

Many residents suspect the University of Chicago of trying to buy up the building, something that Ward denies. "You see nearby buildings with populations of young whites who change every year, it's not hard to figure out what's happening," said the bass player.

Ward also denies the rumor that the union had already accepted a security deposit for the building, but returned it after the May fire in the basement. He acknowledged, "We did receive an offer, which was held in escrow. Our attorneys advised us not to accept any offer until after the referendum." And Ward also insisted that money from the sale of the Musicians Building would not be used to renovate the union's downtown headquarters at 175 W. Washington. This theory went around because an earlier Intermezzo had mentioned the sale of both buildings but the June newsletter made no further mention of the downtown building.

"We need a new headquarters, but out of the high-rent district," Ward said. "We commissioned a $7,000 survey which said that the best thing we could do was knock down the building and sell the vacant lot."

Ward claims that the union has received "three or four offers, one particularly strong offer" for the Drexel building. "Many there feel they will be thrown out on the street, but that's not our intention at all." He said he would not necessarily refuse an offer from a musician-led group, but there has been none.

"The union itself lost $333,000 last year," Ward said. "There's no way we can keep from dipping into our endowment. The Drexel building is just a piece of property we own. It's not a good investment."

"It was never meant to be a 'good investment,'" countered the bass player. "The building has been a Chicago tradition for many years. It was meant to help musicians perfect their craft and thus enrich society at large."

"We are definitely considering a court fight if the referendum approves a sale," Roseboro stated. "We were not given a chance to tell our side of the story, and the membership was not given a chance to judge based on all available information."

Roseboro said the tenants' council has investigated the process by which the building might be named a Chicago landmark on the strength of its cultural history. "That cultural designation takes years and clout. It's feasible, but very long-term."

For now, he wants a well-maintained building that perpetuates the apartment house's traditional musical character. "New York has a musicians' building that is very well kept up," he claimed "There is no reason that Chicago should not have a musicians' building that is a cornerstone, not a disgrace."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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