In Growing Labor Struggle, Jazz Artists Harmonize Music and Justice

Michelle Chen

Justice for Jazz Artist musicians rally outside the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City for a pension plan and a minimum wage.

NEW YORK — Jazz is both America’s classical art form and the classic music of struggle. You can hear that duality, and see it, every night on the dimly lit bandstands of New York City. But for the musicians, the toughest part often comes after the gig, when they realize the cash they took home isn’t enough to make rent. Or maybe 30 years down the line, at the age when other workers retire, but they have to keep playing shows to keep eating.

But now the unrest over inequity on Wall Street is starting to resonate in the heady air of Manhattan jazz clubs. The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, run by the New York musicians’ union Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, is rallying for decent wages and pensions for artists, along with a greater voice in how their music is heard and sold.

Many jazz artists, both bandleaders and side musicians, hustle from gig to gig, often at the mercy of club owners who have little or no obligation to provide basic benefits like medical or unemployment insurance. With New York’s exorbitant cost of living, a single bout of illness or rent hike could tip musicians and their families into poverty.

Hoping to make it easier for the city’s hardest-working musicians to make a real living, Justice for Jazz Artists (a coalition of musicians and activists with Local 802) has worked to pressure some of the city’s major clubs, like the Village Vanguard and the Iridium, to provide musicians with access to pensions later in life. 

Their other long-term demands include a basic minimum pay scale, which could be adjusted according to the size of a club’s business; firmer protections for musicians’ right to earn income for live recordings; and an arbitration process to resolve labor disputes.

The pension funding structure is theoretically already on the books. In 2006 New York State passed a law offering a sales tax break on ticket sales, on the assumption that the money saved could then be funneled toward health and pension benefits. Employers would contribute to the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund. Though the measure initially won support from musicians, the union and even club owners, the policy remains mostly just on paper, as the clubs and the union never came to a formal agreement on how to implement the pension plan. Meanwhile, despite reports of reduced tax revenues for the state, clubs argue they can’t squeeze their bottom line any further.

But Local 802 is still trying to mobilize audiences and musicians to push for a pension plan that would benefit both union and non-union artists. Following the model of a pension system for Broadway musicians, the union’s scheme would enable jazz artists to participate in the pension fund after a five-year vesting process. Gigs would yield regular pension fund payments from clubs – which the union estimates could be as little as $20 a night, per performer – and musicians could supplement with employer contributions from other jobs, such as teaching. Eventually, the union wants to create a network of clubs around the country that would be covered by the system.

One apparent obstacle to a pension deal, according to Todd Weeks, a campaign coordinator at Local 802, is that much of the money in the jazz scene is made off-the-books or in cash.

We’re not asking them to do anything they can’t afford,” Weeks told In These Times. The problem of course is that they don’t want to open their books to the pension fund in the event of an audit. They are uncomfortable around issues of transparency when it comes to showing the world how they conduct their business.”

The call for fairer working conditions has special poignancy in light of jazz’s history; musicians’ long struggle for artistic recognition amid racial discrimination and exploitation is reflected in both the aesthetics of the music and the everyday lives of performers.

In a video documentary on the campaign, saxophonist Seán Lyons puts it simply: I don’t think to be a jazz musician you should have to swear an oath of poverty to be an artist”:

Though the economic plight of artists may be obscured by the mystique and gritty ethos of the jazz scene, the issue has been highlighted as eminent performers have aged and the music industry has narrowed commercial prospects for non-pop genres. The Jazz Foundation of America has documented various stories of artists who’ve fallen into crisis: Pioneering trumpet player Freddie Hubbard relied on the Foundation’s support to cover housing and medical expenses after suffering heart failure. Hundreds of New Orleans musicians were left in dire need of emergency assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

With decent pensions and benefits, artists would presumably rely less on assistance from charities like the Jazz Foundation and Local 802’s Emergency Relief Fund. Not to mention, it would help musicians continue to make music through the years, which would strengthen the entire jazz community.

Yet in some ways, the reverence for tradition and personal loyalties that have kept jazz alive also pose a challenge for organizers. Weeks said, The culture is so entrenched… It’s the whole artist’s mentality – the notion that you need to suffer for your art. And jazz musicians don’t really expect to be able to have access to essential benefits like health insurance or a retirement fund.” Jazz artists who hold creative autonomy as sacred are often wary of union campaigns, he added.

But the political dynamics of the scene may be shifting. The union recently brokered a major collective bargaining agreement for artists participating in the Winter Jazz Fest, providing a pay hike as well as a new degree of trust between musicians and organizers. Writing in the union’s newsletter, Vice President John O’Connor said the deal helps break the ice and shows that such bargaining can be accomplished with the right leverage and with grassroots support.”

Though struggle may inspire the greatest music, there’s no reason why, after so many generations, that struggle can’t be channeled into action. And if enough people listen up, musicians might finally get their due.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Subscribe and Save 59%

Less than $2.00 an issue