Jazz Musicians: In Dire Straits

Ed Hamilton on the difficulties faced by jazz musicians without proper health care coverage and pension benefits

A musician once said, “The Jazz life is not an easy path to wealth or even to basic living---you didn’t choose Jazz as a way of life---Jazz chose you.” And during this life many obstacles have their way of interceding into the musician's life in negative ways hampering the professional progression of their jazz plight.

Recently, Congress presented its last National Endowment for the Arts $50,000 Dollars endowment for selected Jazz musicians. So what’s now available for jazz musicians needing help?

Lucky Thompson was found living on the streets of Seattle; Dakota Staton and King Pleasure were sometimes picked up wandering L.A.’s Washington Blvd. near the famous Parisian Room where they had once performed in better and healthier days. Billy Higgins, house drummer on more than 100 Blue Note recordings died a victim of liver disease having had 3 transplants with money provided by Bill and Camille Cosby; as well as Ray Charles and Milt Jackson’s liver problems; Prolonged pancreatic cancer took James Moody and Teddy Edwards; guitarist Barney Kessel’s wife asked for contributions to battle his long fight with a brain tumor; Art Pepper, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, and Gene Ammons’ fight with drugs; Sonny Criss’, Phineas Newborne’s and Roy Brooks-battles with mental illness; Buddy Collette’s stroke claimed him finally; Art Hillary’s long illness that recently took him; Barbara Morrison recently lost her leg; Etta James lost her alzheimer fight; Henry Grimes was recently found after years of wanderings unassisted. All these musicians at one time in their professional careers were in need of some assistance not provided at the time of their need. They were lacking health care associated with physical, mental, or substance abuse counseling, monetary assistance for subsidizing income, needing housing (there are no more Princess Nicas) or saving homes from foreclosure, rent, dental assistance, transportation, purchasing and or repairing instruments. And let us not forget Jazz musicians have no Social Security and no pensions available.

The California Jazz Foundation and Emergency Musicians Fund now provides an avenue making these services available to those needing assistance.

In 2006, based in in Los Angeles, Edythe Bronston founded The California Jazz Foundation and in 1989, Jimmy Owens, trumpeter and recent NEA recipient started the Emergency Musician's Fund In New York. These foundations created needs for jazz musicians.

At his NEA induction Jimmy Owens said, The musician’s union had 2 billion dollars in its pension fund, yet musicians could not get any of it. And not being able to get any pension has a lot to do with where musicians work--- (musicians) artists are cut out because of the kind of work and where they work.” Owens continued, “None of the clubs where musicians work (Iridium, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, The Vanguard, and Blue Note) pay into the pension fund.” Owens said, “AFM and 807 are responsible for not letting musicians know about the pension. Club owners agreed to pay into the pension if the NY state admission tax(head charge admission) were repealed. Slide Hampton, Hank Jones, Bob Cranshaw and Owens went to Albany to ask the assembly to repeal tax 8.25 on customers. The bill was repealed but club owners reneged on contributing to the pension.

Owens went on saying, “Club owners reneged on an agreement to provide monies to the pension fund instead of paying the customer tax that was saved with the repeal of the head charge mandated by the State of NY---an agreement by the owners that if the law was rescinded, they would pay into the pension fund.” Clubs got around paying into the pension using the excuse that they aren't employers--- the leader of the group was the employer hiring the sidemen and he pays them. Thus, the clubs get out of paying into the pension--- putting musicians in a catch 22.

At The Iridium, Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, and Vanguard, leaflets are passed out in in front of the clubs letting patrons know what predicament club owners put the musicians in. Musicians have to work---and the work is in the clubs.

Englewood Hospital gives free hospitalization as they did for Dizzy who always got his medical care from them.

A possible solution that would generate funds to musicians Owens tells, “Is for them to start their own cooperation. The musicians put money into their own pension and or ask clubs for more money and pay a part to members in the group.”

Possibly a tax or portion from each record or cd sale of that artist could be donated by record companies who still maintain revenue controls of the money made especially after an artist dies. Companies release previously unreleased material or reissue previous unavailable cd’s or records and albums that are restocked and sold again.

Freddie Hubbard died 3 years ago and Blue Note released a live European Set of cd’s, recorded in 1967 thirty years after his death. Why was it not released while he was here still living and performing? Freddie died of a heart conditions that could have been helped with better health care from this money now generated by the Blue Note and other companies. This is a common practice by them to withhold material and as soon as they die ---release it. Why not honor them while they are still healthy?

The California Jazz Foundation and Emergency Musicians Fund have both been striving to provide for musicians without government help. Vocalist Sandra Booker says the California Jazz Foundation helped with her healing process and demonstrated a love, respect and a genuine concern for Jazz musicians. And as an Advisory Board member, Dr. Kenny Burrell says he is happy to support the Foundation and that they are strongly committed to helping jazz musicians in crisis.

Clubs still aren’t contributing to the musicians pension. Reinstitute the tax and charge club owners again to help the enslaved jazz musicians in their fight against the owners. Bronston and Owens must be commended for their ongoing and relentless efforts for jazz musicians.

Congress has taken the NEA away and should now offer monies to AFM members like medicare--musicians need a Bailout like the Banks, Wall Street, GM and Chrysler.

If you look at the picture clearly--- the club owners and record companies as well other entities (radio stations who don’t pay artists for airplay) are making more money off musicians than the musicians can make for themselves and their families---living or dead.

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Ed Hamilton