Jazz Fights for Justice

International Musician, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Jazz Fights for Justice


Since Blue Note New York opened its doors in 1981, New York City's premier jazz venue has provided a stage for some of the best musicians in the world: Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Ron Carter, and many more. The Greenwich Village institution also prides itself on treating artists with respect Not all musicians who play major venues enjoy the security that comes with regular employment and few are able to put money away for their retirement

The Blue Note, and other major venues in New York City provide high-end jazz at high-end prices, and ordinarily pay their musicians well. Yet every year, many less prominent jazz musicians in New York City and beyond are left in poverty at the end of their careers-without pensions, health benefits, or respect for the years they have given to their craft.

New York City's Local 802 sought to address this in 2006 when they approached the New York State Legislature with a proposal to repeal the sales tax on club admissions. The idea, one that was discussed by Local 802 and several of the maj or NYC clubs, including Blue Note, Birdland, and Jazz Standard was that, once the tax was repealed, the money could go towards pension contributions for the musicians who work those venues. This would help protect the musicians who frequently perform at these clubs by ensuring that they would have at least some retirement security through the union and prevent them from falling into poverty.

The tax was repealed and hopes were high that this pension would help those artists in need. But the clubs never followed through on the agreement and currently, they refuse to even discuss the issue with Local 802 officials. So Local 802 is campaigning hard to get the clubs to do the right thing. That campaign is known as Justice for Jazz Artists.

"The clubs have gotten an advantage from this law that we lobbied for and reneged on at least an implicit promise to make pension contributions," says Local 802 Recording Vice President John O'Connor. "It's affordable and would not be difficult to do. Intermediaries we have spoken to say that [the clubs] don't believe this should be their responsibility. But the revenue is with the club-that's where the money comes from. That's it."

Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) has been fighting to obtain these pension benefits for jazz musicians in New York City by mobilizing supporters for their cause. Nearly 6,000 people have signed the petition online and their Facebook page boasts more than 52,000 fans. However, this still hasn't been enough to persuade clubs to sit down and settle the issue.

"The only way is to organize the community to get the clubs to negotiate," O'Connor says. Though government could repeal the law, they cannot enforce the clubs to give those dollars to an organization. "We don't believe that the night clubs want to be a pariah to the community they're trying to serve. We may have to look at a consumer boycott to hurt their bottom line. If you want to support them all [musicians]-it has to come from the resources at the source, which is the night clubs. These club owners have a responsibility to the musicians, and the community at-large, to fairly compensate these incredible artists who perform this great American art form. The clubs profit handsomely from the work of these musicians, enabling club owners to maintain a certain lifestyle to which we say, 'Jazz built this!"'

Jimmy Owens is a New York City j azz trumpeter and has been a member of Local 802 for more than 50 years. He is one of many prominent jazz musicians fighting for the security and well-being of fellow players. …

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