J4JA! Gets Times Coverage

Season’s Greetings!

Jimmy Owens. Photo: Enid Farber


For any and all of you that are interested in the issue of fairness, and would like to see a more level playing field in the NYC jazz club scene, the following article in last week’s NY Times may be of interest to you.  

The leafleting phase of our long term campaign has begun.  The goals of this campaign are far reaching: we seek a national network of clubs where musicians can expect fair wages, a regular pension contribution (and this is for AFM members and non members alike) and some ability to negotiate their working conditions—not to mention more ownership of their own music as recorded in the club, especially in regard to new and future use. 

For those of you who see the actions of J4JA! or the goals of this campaign as too little too late, you have a right to be skeptical; the union has been grappling with the pension issue for years.  But the musicians’ union, and a small group of determined jazz artists from within its ranks, have not given up. 

For those of you who support what we are trying to do with J4JA!, we encourage you to spread the word, sign the petition (currently at 3,000 + signatures), and get involved. 

At most of NYC’s major jazz venues, a pension contribution for one musician is equivalent to the price of two drinks (about $25.00).  At a club like the Blue Note, the cost for pension contributions for a trio for one night can be covered, in many cases, by the price of one individual audience member’s cover charge. 

J4JA! supporters will continue their informational leafleting in front of the  Blue Note this week, Wednesday and Thursday, December 21st and 22nd from aprox. 7-10PM.

If you would like to volunteer, send an email to jazzjustice@local802afm.org

Finally: take a look at the article below and if you agree with what’s happening, pass it on to your friends and colleagues. And if you have yet to do so, please take a moment to sign our petition. 

All the Best, 

Todd Weeks 

Justice for Jazz Artists! 



Jazz Musicians Start a Pension Push


Published: December 12, 2011

The campaign began quietly last Thursday night, when four members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians stood in the cold outside the Blue Note in Greenwich Village and handed out leaflets with the headline “Justice for Jazz Artists!” Musicians continued passing out information outside the Blue Note over the weekend and said they would do so again starting on Thursday.

“It’s just a sin that we have no pension,” said Keisha St. Joan, 72, a jazz vocalist who was distributing leaflets. “I will not have a pension before I die.”

For five years club owners have resisted the union’s efforts and remain divided about the idea. Some accuse the 8,000-member union of trolling for new revenue to prop up the pension fund, whose main beneficiaries are mostly retired Broadway musicians, studio session players and classical musicians who are covered by union contracts. Though some jazz artists belong to the union, they generally work in nonunion clubs. Consequently they have for decades received less pay and fewer benefits than union musicians.

Some club owners also contend that most of the top-tier jazz players they book would rather receive extra pay than union benefits. Others, among them Ron Sturm at the Iridium, say that they favor the idea in principle, but that it might be difficult to implement. Mr. Sturm, who has met three times with union leaders to talk over the proposal, said he thought the union should try to reach similar agreements with all music clubs, regardless of genre.

“I think it’s a great idea philosophically, but the devil’s in the details,” he said. “How do you do it?”

The owners of the Blue Note, Steve and Danny Bensusan, did not respond to several messages seeking comment.

The disagreement between the union and club owners dates back to 2005, when union leaders joined the night clubs to lobby the State Legislature for a reduction in the sales tax on tickets because the extra revenue would be used to pay for pension and health benefits. In letters supporting the legislation, union officials maintained they had an informal agreement with several club owners to that effect. (A similar trade-off had been made in the 1960s to get pension benefits for Broadway musicians.)

The tax break was passed in 2006, but the union never hammered out a formal pact with the club owners. Five years later none of the clubs have entered negotiations with the union to sign collective bargaining agreements. Those agreements are legally required before the clubs can begin paying into Local 802’s pension system. Two years ago, the union elected new leaders who have made pensions for jazz artists a priority.

When the legislation was passed, the union estimated the major jazz clubs  each stood to gain about $67,000 a year from lifting the tax. In 2008 the state estimated it amounted to a tax loss of about $2.2 million a year.

Some club managers say the plan was flawed from the start. Repealing the tax saved the customers money but never produced extra revenue for the clubs, they say. The owners have balked at raising ticket prices to pay for the pension contributions, though some have suggested collecting donations from patrons.

Lorraine Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, said she supported the idea of pensions for jazz artists but added that profit margins are slim at clubs and that costs continue to rise.

“I pay all the traffic will bear in a little club,” she said. “My bottom line is what I have to look at, in order to keep the club functioning.”

Other club managers also argue that asking them to write a separate check to the pension fund for every musician who steps on their stages each year is impractical and costly. “It would be an accounting nightmare for us,” said the programming director for one of the city’s major jazz clubs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals from the union.

He said the clubs generally hire bandleaders, who in turn employ side musicians. He said that the bandleaders are independent contractors, and that it makes more sense for them to pay into the pension fund on behalf of their employees rather than the clubs.

Union leaders say the goal of the campaign is to reach bare-bones labor agreements with five of the biggest jazz clubs in New York City — the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, Birdland, the Jazz Standard and the Iridium — as well as with Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which is run by the nonprofit Jazz at Lincoln Center.

John O’Connor, a vice president of the union, said those pacts, if signed, would only be the beginning. The union also intends to reach similar agreements with clubs in other major cities, creating a network of places that pay pension benefits. That way touring musicians could rack up credit in the pension system no matter where they played. But the key to the union’s long-term plans, he said, is persuading prominent clubs in New York to come aboard.

“What we are really trying to do is to expand our house,” Mr. O’Connor said. “We want 802 to become the champion of all musicians in New York City.”

Under the union’s proposal the owners of the clubs would make a contribution for every musician they hire — both bandleaders and sidemen — whether they are vested in the pension or not. The amount would be a percentage of a minimum wage scale established under the agreement.

Musicians do not have to be in the union to qualify for a pension, but they do have to earn a certain amount in clubs or other workplaces that have agreements with the union. Specifically, a musician must earn an average of $3,000 a year from covered employers for five years.

That threshold is hard for musicians who play most of their gigs in nonunion clubs. “It’s a real Catch-22,” said Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps destitute musicians.

She said many jazz players, especially sidemen and second-tier performers, find themselves facing old age with no pension and little in the way of Social Security, since much of their pay was in cash and off the books.

In private some jazz musicians oppose the union’s efforts, arguing they would rather handle their own retirements. But others support the union and say the owners reneged on a promise they made in return for the tax repeal. They say they doubt the owners’ contention that it was the ticket buyers who benefited from removing the tax.

“They are collecting that money, and they are using it for whatever reason they feel like,” said Bernard Purdie, a jazz drummer and bandleader, just before going on at Carnegie Hall with Galt MacDermot and the New Pulse Jazz Band. “They have been getting away with it for the last four or five years.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 13, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Jazz Musicians Start a Pension Push.