Justice for Jazz Musicians – and Pensions?

December 17, 2012

On the evening of October 18, 2012, a jazz band of six members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, followed by 50 supporters, demonstrated in front of New York’s most prominent jazz club, the Blue Note, as part of a continuing campaign to bring into being Justice for Jazz Artists that has caught and sustained the attention of the national American Federation of Musicians for a possible national campaign.

Of all I’ve written on jazz for some 67 years, this venture may seem, including to jazz players, very unlikely of fulfillment, though it would strengthen the very future lives of many jazz musicians.

The unprecedented scope and importance of this campaign has been explained by Local 802 vice president John O’Connor:

“We seek a national network of clubs where musicians can expect fair wages, a regular pension contribution – and this for AFM members and nonmembers, alike – and some ability to negotiate their working conditions, not to mention more ownership of their own music as recorded in the club, especially in regard to new and future use.”

The concept of jazz pensions is not revolutionary.  Pension agreements have been negotiated for players in Broadway shows, for example, and even with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, all of whose musicians are vested in the national AFM’s musicians’ pension fund through their own efforts.

But – and this is a huge “but” – left out of these negotiations are jazz players in clubs.  Says John O’Connor: “The vast majority of sidemen who appear in NYC clubs have no protection, no pension, no health insurance, no social security, and receive substandard wages.”   And dig this: “Busboys enjoy more job security and make more money than most jazz musicians!  Busboys should be paid better, as well.”

The reactions to the 802 jazz band in front of the Blue Note in October were similar to those at other Justice for Jazz Artists appearances.

Also present was a major Justice for Jazz Artists strategist, Todd Bryant Weeks, who reported that as the parading musicians, “marched back and for the several times in front of the club, a supporting group of patrons was cheering them on.”   Also clearly in their favor were the musicians working that night in the Blue Note who were performing a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie.

I knew Dizzy very well and if he were still here, as his music internationally is, I would not have been surprised if he’d left the bandstand and joined the 802 marching band.

But it’s also important to note, as John O’Connor has, that there are musicians, including some 802 members, “who are frightened by the idea of being involved in a labor dispute, as there is no real precedent for widespread organized protest among jazz musicians.”

As Todd Bryant Weeks accordingly adds: “For the time being, the union also recognizes that some musicians need cover – the ability to be involved in a union campaign while not revealing their identities to employers who might seek to blacklist them.”

This should eventually be a documentary to be shown nationally on public television, as Weeks continues: “Dozens of jazz musicians have been working on Justice for Jazz Artists for years from behind the scenes.  802 plans to continue to keep those musicians, when necessary, our of harm’s way, while still doggedly pursuing its goal.”

And Weeks emphasizes, as demonstrations and media support continues: “By law, the musicians’ union is forbidden from discriminating against non-union musicians, so all musicians – union and non-union – stand to benefit from the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign.”

Also benefiting, I would add, are not only veteran jazz sidemen, who well know of colleagues in their age group who died alone in the quicksand of poverty.  Younger players, including those who look to their economic future with anxiety, may be playing with more zest as Justice for Jazz Musicians keeps gaining momentum.

Also heartened will be those around the nation and the world who don’t know one chord from another, but for whom jazz has become essential to their lives.

As I’ve reported previously, an index of widespread support for Justice for Jazz Artists since the campaign began in 2009 is, “an online petition containing thousands of signatures from jazz musicians and their supporters.”

Among writers on jazz joining the campaign are: Dan Morgenstern, Dr. Lewis Porter, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Garry Giddins, and the person you’re now reading.

New York club owners are not among them.  This is despite the fact that in 2006, 802’s Jazz Advisory Committee successfully worked to get the New York State legislature to put an end to the mandatory entertainment tax clubs had to pay.  There was an understanding among some key jazz club owners that because of 802’s role in removing the tax, money saved would be applied to pensions for jazz players through contributions to the AFM and Employers’ Pension Fund.

But as 802 has often disclosed, none of those clubs, including the Blue Note, Jazz Standard, and Birdland, have fulfilled that understanding.  Several of these clubs, notably the Blue Note, will not even speak or even communicate with Local 802 on the issue.

By contrast with the club owners who make a living from jazz, an unexpected sign of support for justice to jazz came from police who were on hand for the October protest demonstration at the Blue Note.  Reported Todd Bryant Weeks:

“NYPD’s 6th Precinct office made its presence known and was highly cooperative, citing solidarity regarding the right for union workers to demonstrate.”

Moreover, the “Community Affairs Liason for the 6th Precinct, Officer Martin Baranski, was on hand, and was very respectful and helpful to union organizers.”

The club owners obviously need much deeper re-education in jazz community relations at a time when, as Todd Weeks points out, “there are scores of ‘retired’ jazz performers here in New York… living hand to mouth and with no discernable safety net.

“The musicians rely on direct assistance from entities like the Local 802 Musicians’ Assistance Program or the Jazz Foundation of America.   Because there historically has been a lack of advocacy for jazz artists, a culture of charity has sprung up.  But there are far more needy cases than there are charitable dollars to ameliorate suffering.”

Characteristically, 802 is looking beyond its fully intended victory in New York City.  That, says John O’Connor, “would only be the beginning.  The union also intends to reach similar agreements with clubs in other major cities, creating a network of places that pay pension benefits.

“That way, touring musicians could rack up credit in the pension system no matter where they played.   But the key to the union’s long-term plans is persuading prominent clubs in New York to come aboard.”

Coming, says organizing director Leon Bell, are: “Lobbying of elected officials at state and local levels and creation of committees of prominent supporters; political action committees; field captains to organize players at club levels; and, of course, target committees of those of us who patronize night clubs.”

In the December 2011 issue of Local 802’s ALLEGRO, the most swinging labor union publication I’ve ever seen, O’Connor ends with: “Though there are no guarantees, we believe we can make this happen.  The journey has begun. We call on all members and supporters of jazz music to join us in this just struggle… and help make history.”

Since Justice for Jazz Artists is certainly an evolving story, I’ll update it from time to time for JAZZed readers.

Nat Hentoff is one of the foremost authorities on jazz culture and history.  He joined Down Beat magazine as a columnist in 1952 and served as that publication’s associate editor from 1953-57.  Hentoff was a columnist and staff writer with The Village Voice for 51 years, from 1957 until 2008, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Jazz Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among many other outlets.

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