“Jazz Built This!” NYC Jazz Musicians to Protest Club Owners Who Deny Promised Benefits to Jazz Musicians.

Text by Dawoud Kringle

Justice_4_Jazz_ArtistsOn the night of Thursday, April 11, 2013, Justice for Jazz Artists held a demonstration and rally to begin its Jazz Built This! protest against jazz club owners who refuse to make modest pension contributions on behalf of the musicians who play in their clubs and make these club owners rich.

New York City is a Mecca for the best jazz musicians in the world. It was here that jazz became one of America’s greatest artistic and musical achievements. At the same time, many older musicians have little economic security and often retire in poverty. Broadway and symphony orchestras are protected by union contracts; jazz musicians are not. To add insult to injury, owners of prestigious and expensive jazz clubs (such as the Blue Note, Birdland, Jazz Standard, Village Vanguard and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola) have prospered from the musicians who play in those clubs; while the musicians are not guaranteed minimum pay standards or benefits. Many of these clubs record the musicians with no remuneration (Some clubs have argued that players have de facto agreed to the clubs’ recording and use of their work simply by agreeing to play there; which is absurd. Under any basic union contract, musicians would receive compensation for work they create. Club owners already make ample profit from the live performance, and do not have the right to perpetually profit from the product that musicians create simply because the owners possess the space where the musicians play).

These same clubs have refused to work with the musicians’ union to address pensions or any other work-related issues, despite the fact that in 2007, the Local 802 successfully lobbied the State Legislature to waive the sales tax on admission charges, with the express understanding that a portion of these savings would be directed toward a modest pension contribution on behalf of musicians. All of the clubs profited from this tax break-and all have refused to hold up their end of the deal. Since the law’s passage, no club has contributed a penny to the pension fund. According to Local 802’s estimates, pension contributions by the Village Vanguard, for example, would amount to approximately $20,000 a year. Yet, owing to the tax abatement secured by the union, the club takes in around $80,000 a year in extra income. Even if they kept their word and paid the $20K to the pension fund, they’re still making a profit (and it’s possible that the money paid to the union’s pension fund could be tax deductible).

Bottom line; their greed condemns some of the greatest musicians in the world to poverty.

Since its founding and social outreach efforts bean in 2011, Justice for Jazz Artists campaign (J4JA) has reached nearly 50,000 fans on Facebook and garnered high-profile press coverage. The campaign’s momentum was accelerated when legendary trumpeter Jimmy Owens, in his acceptance speech for the 2012 NEA Jazz Master’s A.B. Spellman award at Lincoln Center, endorsed the campaign and publicly lambasted club owners for their greed. The campaign’s outreach has continued with multiplying endorsements from top jazz musicians and prominent cultural figures (such as Seth McFarlane, creator of the hit show “Family Guy.”), and many elected officials, including New York City Council members Jessica Lappin, Rosie Mendez and Diana Reyna, as well as former Mayor David Dinkins.

Some of the musicians endorsing Justice for Jazz Artists include Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens, Joe Lovano, John Pizzarelli, Bucky Pizzarelli, Dave Liebman, Bertha Hope, Bernard Purdie, Bob Cranshaw, Jason Moran, Randy Weston, Janet Lawson, Wycliffe Gordon, Kenny Davis, Dr. Larry Ridley, Gene Perla, Rufus Reid, James Spaulding, Phil Woods, David Amram, Ed MacEachen, Butch Miles, Charli Persip, Carline Ray, Junior Mance, Charles Tolliver, Keisha St. Joan, Regina Carter, James Carter, Judi Silvano, Papo Vasquez, Paquito D’ Rivera, Chris Walden, Tom “Bones” Malone, Lou Donaldson, Billy Kaye, Roy Campbell, Harold Mabern, Dr. Lewis Porter, Mala Waldron, Michael Abene, Gaudencio Thiago de Mello, and “Sweet” Sue Terry.

In fact, I would recommend that the aforementioned musicians consider getting more involved in the movement by refusing to play at clubs such as the Blue Note for a while and start to make official statements addressing these issues. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a desperate attempt to find an excuse not to come to the table to negotiate, club owners have argued that many jazz musicians don’t belong to the musicians’ union. Justice for Jazz Artists countered by stating that the clubs are dissuading musicians from joining the union by failing to make the contributions they promised to the pension fund even as musicians face financial uncertainty in old age. Owners also said that pension contributions would be an administrative burden to clubs a patent lie – as these contributions could be easily aggregated in a fully transparent, monthly payment and would not require separate payments on behalf of each musician; what Local 802 AFM’s Recording Vice President John O’Connor described as “… minimal or no economic impact on these clubs.”

Justice for Jazz Artists is also asking clubs to discuss a minimum pay scale that is common to most union contracts. A wage floor for side musicians in clubs would not necessitate raising ticket prices, and could make a real difference for musicians.

Bottom line, pensions are a vital supplement to musicians’ well-being, and contributions would not be the burden that club owners make them out to be.  Justice for Jazz Artists insists (with the support of many prestigious musicians, elected officials, and cultural figures) that jazz musicians’ economic isolation is not a natural state of affairs. Musicians deserve the same basic financial security as anyone. Justice for Jazz Artists believes that they deserve a modicum of recognition and support.

On that chilly April night, demonstrators met under the arch at Washington Square Park to prepare for their march to the Blue Note Jazz Club. Many of the participants brought instruments (mostly horns; but a few drums, and one man brought a banjo). The march began, and throughout, Dixieland style jazz standards (with some nods toward free jazz improvisation) filled the Village. The musicians / protesters took a winding, leisurely stroll through the Village. The people in the bars, restaurants, stores, and walking on the sidewalks largely eschewed the usual “I’m a New Yorker And I Seen It All” attitude, and offered smiles and nods, actually taking time to read the signs we carried.

After our exploration of the streets, the moment of truth arrived. We stopped in front of the Blue Note. As is usually the case, there was a long line in front of the club. We presented the most interesting spectacle; the club-goers (mostly tourists to my NYC trained eye) looked at us, not knowing what to make of us. Passers by either stopped and asked what we were doing, or ignored us. The patrons and staff of the clubs surrounding the Blue Note paid us no mind. But inside the Blue Note, from the vestibule and window, the staff and management of the Blue Note gave us looks that would peel paint. We made a few marches circling the block, and then stationed ourselves across the street, aiming our final invective of the night against the tyrannical monolith. Then the march ended, and the musicians / protesters went our way.

There was some press there: NY1 had a camera to record the event, and our people spoke to the media to voice our concerns. And nobody voiced any opposition to our position.

There was a minimal police presence, and, beyond listing a few guidelines, the NYPD took no action against the protesters.

There are a few other concerns that must be addressed.

One is that there was a noticeable lack of young people who joined us. Why this is, whether they were unaware of the march, had gigs to play, or were uninterested, was not a good sign. I ask the young musicians to join in this struggle to secure our future. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the protesters played jazz standards in Dixieland style. Now, I liked it; but this may not be very effective, and may well be counterproductive; because this music style doesn’t represent this movement and gives the public the erroneous impression that the rally is about partying and enjoying music. It is, in fact, a struggle for the right to survive.

The union doesn’t get much support from the New York City area jazz radio stations. As for the rally, the NY jazz radio stations have made no announcements or comments about it. It would be helpful to all concerned if the jazz stations got behind the union (unless they are making profits from the clubs; in which case they wouldn’t want to rock the boat).

Union representative Todd Weeks had asked us to come to the union any time and tell us what’s happening in our music scene. This is a good idea; musicians should inform the union what is happening. But the opposite side of that coin must also be addressed. The union is in desperate need to expose themselves to the music scenes that are outside the realm of Broadway and Western Classical music (all of whom have their union contracts): which the union seems to have all but exclusively confined itself to; such as nu jazz, improve, electronica, world music, latin, rock, blues, etc. This is a weakness the union is suffering from; and the musicians themselves are suffering from it as well.

In closing, I ask you to consider DooBeeDooBeeDoo’s motto: DooBeeDooBeeDoo is a cross-cultural on-line magazine, based on the view that music and community are indivisible, and that musicians, consumers and record companies are all part of one community. The basic thrust of the editorial content is that a social awareness can be fostered through music. This magazine’s editor, Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi, is a union member, music activist and musician who cares for the NY jazz scene and all the other music scenes and musicians which represent the 99% of all musicians in NY. This magazine’s involvement in Justice for Jazz Artists seeks to inform the public that musician aren’t treated in the same way as other workers or employees. They even get tips from customers like waiters in restaurants. But the recognition and just remuneration for our work and contribution to both the culture and the economy of this city is being prevented. This must end.

I ask you to support Justice for Jazz Artists and let’s boycott the Blue Note!