Seeking Justice for Musicians in Jazz Clubs

Nat Hentoff on New York Local 802's efforts to improve benefits for jazz musicians

Soon after I moved to New York in 1953, I began to realize how tough it is for sidemen and some leaders working mostly in jazz clubs to sustain a living. Although I had helped the American Federation of Radio Artists organize a radio station in Boston, I’d never been able to figure out how a musicians’ union could organize players in clubs who appear from time to time.

Now, however, New York Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) is engaged in a jazz nightclub campaign that could expand to other cities around the country by using AFM affiliates there. Todd Bryant Weeks, Jazz Business Representative of Local 802 and author of the first comprehensive biography of Oran “Hot Lips” Page, provides the hard truth that hit this jazz fan when I began writing from New York. “The vast majority of sidemen who appear in NYC jazz clubs,” says Weeks, “have no protections, no pension, no health insurance, no social security and receive substandard wages. Busboys, who also should be paid better, make more money than most jazz musicians.” Weeks adds this important point: “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.”

The website justiceforjazzartists.org has information on that campaign, volunteer opportunities for New Yorkers and, as I noted in the Village Voice, an online petition containing thousands of signatures gathered from jazz musicians and their supporters since the campaign began in 2009. Among the writers on jazz: Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Dan Morgenstern, Dr. Lewis Porter, John Chilton and this columnist. Among the government officials: City Council Speaker (and activist) Christine Quinn and former Mayor David Dinkins. There are hundreds of musicians on the list.

The campaign, now expanding into other dimensions of collective bargaining, began by focusing on pensions for musicians who make repeat appearances at a club over time, playing there every week or month or several times per year. In 2006, Local 802, with the support of jazz clubs, battled hard and got the state legislature to repeal the sales tax on the admission charge to jazz clubs. The idea was that the funds those clubs saved could be applied to make pension contributions to the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund.

Unfortunately, jazz club owners have resisted offering pensions to musicians, even refusing to have a conversation with Local 802 on that possibility. For years I have been doing television interviews from a major club, the Blue Note, with such musicians as Ron Carter, the late James Moody, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Heath, Kenny Werner and others. As I wrote in the Voice, the boss at the Blue Note also refuses to speak to me about the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign. I have said publicly that when and if Local 802 sets up a picket line at the Blue Note, this former union organizer—I also helped organize the Voice—will not cross it. What do you know? I haven’t been asked to do another interview from the Blue Note since I made that pledge. Could there be a connection?

In the February 2011 issue of Local 802’s Allegro, Recording Vice President John O’Connor writes, “If there is a picket line in front of a major jazz club, it will be the first time in memory. But that doesn’t mean that Local 802 and its members aren’t planning on going there.”

The union will not only go there. “Currently,” O’Connor continues, “organizers at Local 802 are talking to scores of jazz musicians about organizing the clubs, and so far the response has been enthusiastic as the musicians have brought numerous issues of concern to the table. … [T]he AFM’s new leadership is quite open to a national campaign. Indeed, we think one is necessary. Organizing clubs in one city is not going to do it. It may be one at a time, but eventually we think the clubs will learn it is more in their interest to talk to us than not. That’s a strategy we and the Federation are willing to take on the road.”

Todd Bryant Weeks adds a necessary caution strategy: “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. 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, out of harm’s way, while still doggedly pursuing its goal.”

But there will be jazz musicians who do not feel they need (or want) cover. As Weeks also says, “Street-level demonstrations like the one that occurred in September 2009 show that there is power and safety in numbers, and that jazz musicians can organize.” This is what happened in 2009, when Justice for Jazz Artists felt it had to move into the streets: After a rally at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village—a continual forum for citizens actively playing the First Amendment—a procession recalling a New Orleans parade made its way to the Blue Note. As Weeks reported, the protestors included about 125 musicians, instruments in hand, along with lay swingers backing them up. They presented a petition that was summarily dismissed. Said Local 802’s John O’Connor in Allegro, “We’re not going away. The Blue Note presence is only the beginning.”

I remember that in storied New Orleans, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was a test for the collective creativity of the band as well as the singularity of the soloists. When the Justice for Jazz Artists come marching to your city, it will be up to local jazz fans and supporters to prove how essential a role the music plays in their lives.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181

Originally published in July/August 2011

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