Photo by Ruth Morgan

NEW AMSTERDAM MUSICAL ASSOCIATION

James Reese Europe, Founder; John E. Johnson, President 

“When I learned the rich history of NAMA, I went bananas. It’s a fabulous thing to be involved in, I look at this as an honor.”

John E. Johnson

In 1900 the New Amsterdam Musical Association was in its embryonic stage but well on its way to becoming a Harlem jewel. NAMA, recently celebrating its 100th Anniversary, has the distinction of being the oldest Negro organization in the world and among the oldest musical organizations in America.

 

After moving to various addresses in Harlem, NAMA purchased a brownstone in 1922, located at 107 West 130th Street. “I first started going to NAMA in 1979 to socialize and jam. I wasn’t aware of the organization’s history until I became president,” said bassist John E. Johnson. Vera Wilson (a cocktail drummer), the organization’s former and only female president invited Johnson to join the Board of Directors in 2001. The following year he was voted president. “The primary goal is to give this rich heritage to the younger generation because it belongs to them,” says Johnson. Renovating the building is another priority.

 

“When I learned the rich history of NAMA, I went bananas. It’s a fabulous thing to be involved in, I look at this as an honor,” noted Johnson. “Now, we’re trying to do everything we can to build up the organization.”

 

NAMA was formed out of a practice session at the West 53rd Street apartment of Louis Biggar Wise, a cello player. The attending musicians felt the need for a headquarters where they could exchange ideas, make contacts for engagements, and enjoy social events.

 

NAMA became chartered in 1905, and musicians from the circus, vaudeville, minstrel and tent shows all found their way to this new outlet. While monopolizing dance hall jobs, segregation prevented them membership in the musicians union Local 310, prompting them to form a Negro union. However, in 1912 James Reese Europe, a NAMA founder, was key in getting Negro musicians accepted into Local 310 (now known as Local 802).

 

“The association was booming from 1940 to 1970; it was the only place musicians had to socialize. After the building’s purchase it also became a rooming house for out-of-town musicians because they couldn’t stay downtown,” says saxophonist William Pyatt, an active 50-year member.

 

Currently, the organization is slowly restoring its vibrant visibility with Monday night jam sessions and music workshops.

 

—by RON SCOTT

harlem is... 

a project of Community Works NYC and New Heritage Theatre Group

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