Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the city’s music scene than the jazz artist. And while the genre isn’t as popular as it once was, these talents are still in demand at many of the world-famous jazz clubs in Manhattan, like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. In fact, many of these clubs still turn tremendous profits. Yet, jazz musicians — freelancers who are paid per gig with no benefits — are second-class citizens in American Federation of Musicians Local 802, through which the bulk of the union’s symphony and Broadway members enjoy employer-paid medical benefits and pensions.
Jazz musicians have begun fighting back with a campaign to pressure the major clubs into signing collective bargaining agreements that would set a minimum pay rate for jazz arts, create a pension plan and codify a process for dealing with disputes between artists and club owners. The musicians also want royalties for club recordings — if the clubs profit from streaming recorded performances, the musicians would get a cut. So far, the campaign has been limited to union activists leafleting clubs and letting jazz fans know about their plight.
The struggle began in the early 1990s, when jazz musicians formed a caucus within the union to address their unique issues. Broadway and orchestra musicians have more regular jobs and operate as part of a larger group, whereas jazz artists have to compete against each other and form their own style. “It’s been an every-man-for-himself environment,” said Todd Bryant Weeks, a Local 802 business agent. “They have to be independent.”
This type of work carries a great deal of economic insecurity. The Broadway and orchestra players have fairly consistent work, while a jazz artist can encounter dry spells. Weeks noted that clubs will hire band leaders, who in turn hire jazz artists who arrive to the show without knowing who they will be playing with or how much the other artists are getting paid.
The jazz artists’ caucus made some headway in securing contracts for performers at the Village Vanguard and for jazz instructors at The New School in the 1990s. A legislative plan to secure pension benefits was devised, in which Local 802 lobbied Albany to rescind a tax on club admissions, moving that money instead into defined pension plans. Then-governor George Pataki signed legislation that rescinded the tax but did not compel the club owners to use that money for pensions. “It became kind of a toothless law,” Weeks said. “This was sort of a dead end for us.”
In an article for the union’s website, Weeks noted that there was another component of the inequality between jazz musicians and players at bigger venues: jazz is historically performed by people of color. “From the days of traveling vaudeville and tent shows, through to the modern civil rights era and beyond, black musicians have been subjected to second-class lodgings and travel accommodations and abject racism, particularly in the Deep South,” he wrote. “Historically, jazz musicians are among the most abused of all professional performers in our history. Pit bands, especially ones made up of blacks, from whence many of the early jazz ensembles sprung, were often treated as a lower caste by more visible actors, singers and dancers.”
Now, the pressure is on the clubs themselves, many of which have plenty of money to throw around. The union claims, for example, that Blue Note has still turned a profit even during the economic downturn. Jazz artists note that without workers like themselves, who spend their lives honing their craft and practicing for hours each day, there would be no profits for the club owners or the service workers they employ.
Furthermore, the union argues that the clubs could easily meet these economic demands. For instance, Weeks said, it believes that a pension contribution could be as little as the cost of two drinks at a club, and that a place like Blue Note could pay the cost of pension benefits for three performers with one customer’s cover charge.
Local 802 estimates that it has around 500 members who play jazz, are older than 40, and don’t have a defined retirement plan. About 20 percent of the union’s 8,500 members are jazz musicians, although some of them have other gigs on Broadway. Weeks estimates that about 400 musicians are active in the campaign, but added that “many jazz artists are afraid of reprisals and will not come out publicly on this issue until we have reached critical mass.”
So far, no club has joined the union at the bargaining table. Various club owners told The New York Times that pension contributions would be too costly and impractical, and although they think these benefits are good ideas in theory, they aren’t tenable in the current economy.
“I think it’s a great idea philosophically, but the devil’s in the details,” Iridium owner Ron Sturm told the Times. “How do you do it?”
So far, the union hasn’t called for boycotts, but it is bringing the message to club patrons, who could put pressure on the owners. Local 802 organizes regular leafleting sessions outside clubs with the hope that jazz fans will realize that they have a vested interest in supporting performers.
“We encourage people to go in and support these clubs but also to send the message that they support [the campaign],” Weeks said. “They can also lobby their local City Council members or state representatives to get behind this issue.”
If progress is made with just one club, the union believes, jazz musicians can achieve some of their contract goals with little acrimony.
“If one club comes forward, we are looking for ways to celebrate that club,” Weeks said. “We can get the word out that if you are coming to New York, you should book at this club. And it will make the other clubs look bad.”
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