BRINGING IT HOME: “Jazz master Lou Donaldson adds soulful style to an evening focused on musicians’ rights”
By Lionelle Hamanaka
Note: the following is a sneak preview of an article to be published in the upcoming March 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of AFM Local 802. See www.Local802afm.org
Jazz musicians and fans gathered on Feb. 1 to express their enthusiasm, solidarity and support for Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign.
The panel, entitled “Coming Together as One: Fighting for Your Rights on the NYC Club Scene,” kicked off the evening and was followed by a performance by the Lou Donaldson Quartet with special guest Keisha St. Joan.
The event, which attracted about 200 people to St. Peter’s Church, was arguably the strongest outreach effort to date associated with the jazz campaign, and the turnout was equally powerful. Many jazz musicians, music students, and people from across the spectrum of the NYC musical community showed up and signed petitions, bought “Justice for Jazz Artists!” T-shirts, and filled out volunteer forms.
The panelists for the evening included jazz musicians Bob Cranshaw, Bertha Hope, Arun Luthra and John Mosca. They were joined by Local 802 Recording Vice President John O’Connor; pianist, music educator and author Dr. Lewis Porter; and Ron Scott, a columnist for the New York Amsterdam News. Dr. Porter moderated the discussion and Todd Bryant Weeks, Local 802’s senior business rep in the Jazz Department, M.C.’d and organized the event.
Bassist Bob Cranshaw led off the panelists. “I used to hate the union with a passion,” he said. “At that time, back in the 1970s, they had a rule you could only work five nights a week. When they brought me up on charges for working on my off night, I jumped on the table in front of the entire Trial Board and said, ‘Do you mean to say I can’t go out and support my family…I’ll kick the teeth out of anyone who tells me that!’” He got no takers, and the union’s charges against him were dropped. “I guess I’ve now become that person,” he said with a laugh.
Gesturing to the room of fellow musicians in the audience, Cranshaw added, “I’ve been working with the union because you guys are my family.”
Since that incident, Cranshaw has been steadfastly advocating for jazz musicians at Local 802 for over 20 years. Now a member of the Local 802 Executive Board, Cranshaw was for many years the local’s jazz consultant. He is also a founder of the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign and is a long time member of the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee.
Every year jazz artists retire with no pension, little Social Security, and no financial safety net. To address this pressing issue, Local 802 is demanding that NYC’s six major jazz clubs – the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Iridium, Birdland and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola – make significant contributions towards the AFM pension fund for all musicians who appear in their clubs.
As part of the campaign, the union is also demanding recording rights for musicians when their music is captured live at the clubs.
The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has been an active part of the union’s efforts to help jazz musicians for many years, but the current phase of the campaign, which seeks to mobilize musicians and fans and educate the public, has been under way since January 2010.
Pianist Bertha Hope, who also served on the panel, is a strong supporter of the campaign even though the result may not affect her personally. “You have to become vested in the pension plan,” she said, and it might be too late for her. But, she explained, “I’m just in this fight to see to it that the situation can change for others. I don’t have a pension…I’ve been involved with two [union] locals, and I’ve been working since I was 15, but I have no pension. I don’t think that should be the norm.”
John Mosca, co-leader of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, told the audience that many years ago his band decided to form a legal corporation and sign an agreement with the union. “As a result of the band’s efforts to contribute to their own pension collectively, most of the guys got vested, but without the support of the club,” he said.
Mosca said he felt that over the years the Gordon family – who owns the Vanguard – had supported the band through hard times, and that they were “on the same side.” He also expressed the hope that the union and the club could find a way to “work together for the long term benefit of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra musicians, which would, in the end, help the club as well.”
Panelist Arun Luthra, a saxophonist and composer, later said, “I realize that I am an exception among jazz musicians of my generation in that – thanks to Local 802 – I have health insurance and I am vested in the AFM pension plan.”
Luthra added, “Most musicians of my generation – and younger – generally haven’t had the chance to learn about, or benefit from, the union’s activities, sometimes to the point where they are actually reluctant to get involved. And because the music business is now changing so dramatically and so fast, the traditional models of doing business are fast becoming obsolete – including how we musicians get paid, how we get benefits, how the folks who run the venues manage their businesses and pay us, and how our union can advocate for us. To achieve Justice for Jazz Artists’ goals we need to embrace these new ways of doing business, and create the awareness of these issues among musicians to build solidarity.”
Writer Ron Scott said, “You folks need to let the public know what’s going on,” and bemoaned the fact that “there’s not one representative of a club here.” Scott called for an open dialogue with club owners, and said they should be there discussing the campaign, debating the issues and opening up with their point of view. “Jazz musicians are musical warriors,” said Scott, and he advocated for more direct action on the part of jazz musicians and fans, and cited Malcolm X’s famous call to arms, “By any means necessary.”
Local 802 Vice President John O’Connor told the audience that “there’s never been a union club in this town, at least not for any significant chunk of time. We want to create union clubs to make a difference for musicians.”
O’Connor added, “Historically, and in this current struggle, the clubs have used the negative stereotype of the union against us. The union of 1960 is not the same as it is in 2013. Musicians need to know that.”
Jazz Rep Todd Weeks spoke about the union’s legal strategy, which has its roots in a state law passed in 2007 with union support. The law forgave the state sales tax on New York venues that feature actors and live music. The idea was that jazz venues would then donate this forgiven tax money to the musicians’ pensions. It would have represented a zero loss for the clubs and would have helped the musicians. The problem was that Republican Governor George Pataki signed the tax forgiveness law only with the provision that it would not legally mandate that money from public coffers go towards a private pension fund.
At the time, jazz artists and union advocates Hank Jones, Slide Hampton, Chip Jackson, Bob Cranshaw, Tony Jefferson, Jimmy Owens and others performed for legislators in Albany to make their case during the lobbying effort. But while the club owners gladly accepted the tax break, they stopped short of contributing the savings into the musicians’ pension fund.
For those musicians new to the AFM pension fund, it’s a defined benefit plan. To earn a pension, you have to get vested. The good news is that under the union’s plan, it’s possible to get partial vesting credit for as little as 15 one-night gigs over the course of a year. If put into effect, the union’s plan could significantly benefit several thousand musicians annually, and create incentives for continued investment through other forms of work, including teaching.
“The point of all of it,” said Weeks, “is to change the culture from one of charity to one of empowerment, which will have the added benefit of sustaining the music.”
At this writing, the majority of the jazz clubs in NYC – with one or two exceptions – have refused to return the union’s phone calls and letters.
After the panel discussion, there were several comments by members of the audience. Jimmy Owens remarked, “It’s wonderful that this many people turned out to learn about this situation. You can go and ask your friends to become agitators. When you go to the Blue Note, you can ask, ‘Are you paying into the union fund?’ We have to bring this to the owners,” said Owens to much applause, “With your help we can win this.”
Owens added that over 70 musicians who teach at the jazz department of the New School now earn health benefits and pension contributions via a Local 802 contract. He cited this as an example of one of the many things Local 802 has done for the jazz community.
Another audience member suggested getting politicians like President Clinton, who loves jazz, to advocate for the jazz artists and back the campaign.
The eminent saxophonist and bandleader Jimmy Heath said, “A lot of musicians are simply not in the union. How many are there?”
The answer, according to John O’Connor, was that Local 802 has a little over 8,000 members today, down from a historical high of 30,000. “That’s an example of what has happened to the music business,” said O’Connor. “The union has to show the community what it’s doing to remain relevant and to rebuild.”
O’Connor then gave an example of how some younger members have benefited from union agreements. Recently a committee of jazz musicians came together and asked for help with the Undead Music Festival, a downtown event that happens every June. Since then, O’Connor explained, “the minimum wage scale for the festival has been raised to $160 per musician, whatever their billing.”
The union had previously achieved a similar victory with the Winter Jazz Festival, raising wages and securing a binding contract with producers
After the discussion, the great saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Lou Donaldson held forth, spellbinding the audience for over an hour. He was joined by the powerful trio of Akiko Tsuruga (organ), Randy Johnston (guitar) and Fushuki Tainaka (drums). Keisha St. Joan also joined the band on vocals. She rocked the hall with the blues and a moving rendition of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart.” To her credit, St. Joan was also the one who had originally dreamed up the entire event.
Later, to vociferous applause, St. Joan spoke passionately from the bandstand, “It’s long past time for this to happen!” she said “It needs to happen this century. We have waited too long!” The crowd agreed.
To date, Justice for Jazz Artists has collected close to 5,000 petition signatures and almost 50,000 likes on Facebook. The campaign has also sponsored live demonstrations and other outreach events. To sign the petition or get access to the campaign’s Facebook page, start at www.JusticeForJazzArtists.org or call (212) 245-4802, ext. 143. (You can also call that number for more information on the union’s pension plan.)
Lionelle Hamanaka is the editor and publisher of the Jazz Culture Newsletter, which can be found in print at select locations in NYC and online at www.TheJazzCulture.com. This article was published in the March 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). See www.Local802afm.org.