About Justice for Jazz Artists

Jazz is an esteemed American art form, inspiring passionate devotion in generations of fans, and New York City has long been an international jazz mecca.

However, unlike musicians who play on Broadway and in symphony orchestras who are protected by union contracts, the skilled jazz musicians who work in major New York City clubs have no guarantee of fair payment and receive no pension or health contributions or state statutory benefits like workers’ comp, unemployment or disability insurance. And not only that—many of these great players find that their gigs have been recorded by the clubs and used without their permission or any royalty payments.

Because of these injustices, many of these men and women who sustain this great American music are forced to retire with no income to fall back on in their later years. This is shameful in a country that has recognized jazz as a “National Treasure.”

The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign is out to change all of that, by achieving these goals:

  • Fair Pay
  • Adequate Pension Contributions
  • Protection of Recording Rights
  • A Process for Redressing Grievances

The fact is, the major NYC jazz clubs like the Blue Note, Iridium, Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Jazz Standard, and Birdland can afford to do right by the musicians who bring patrons through their doors. The New York City musicians’ union, AFM, Local 802 wants to work with these clubs to ensure that musicians receive fair treatment. We need to convince the clubs that this is an important issue that affects hundreds of musicians annually.

As the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign continues its effort to bring the major jazz clubs under collective bargaining agreements for pension benefits and other issues, we are seeing the support grow among jazz musicians, elected officials, academics, journalists, and jazz audiences. Many prominent NYC musicians—Ron Carter, Bob Cranshaw, Jimmy Owens, Harry Belafonte and Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, John Pizzarelli, Wycliffe Gordon, Jason Moran, Randy Weston, Bobby Sanabria, Phil Woods, Paquito D’Rivera, and Lakecia Benjamin, among them—have all signed on as supporters of the campaign. There are thousands more.

If you want to help, we ask that you sign the Justice for Jazz Artists Campaign petition, and tell your friends to do the same! To sign the J4JA petition or sent a letter to clubs, click here.

J4JA! Supporters have also been conducting informational leafletings in front of the six major NYC jazz clubs. If you would like to volunteer, send an email to jazzjustice@local802afm.org.

Fairness! Dignity! Respect! Now’s The Time!

Justice for Jazz Artists FAQ

We are thrilled with the support Justice for Jazz Artists has received, and we want to make sure everyone has all the facts about the campaign. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about this important effort:

Q: With live jazz struggling for audiences, why has the Justice for Jazz Artists chosen this time to go after the clubs?

One of our campaign slogans is “Now’s the Time!” There are jazz clubs in this city that are making good money year after year. We want them to continue to thrive. All that musicians are seeking from the healthy clubs is payment of a benefit that the clubs can well afford. Our demands will put no one out of business. In fact, according to our analyses, pension contributions based on a fair minimum scale wage will have little effect on the major clubs’ bottom line. Everyone knows it is more difficult than ever to make a living as a musician. Does that mean we should not fight for fairness for those who can manage to make it in this profession? If we don’t organize in this field, it will continue to be a “race to the bottom,” as wages continue to decline, and it will be harder for musicians to make a living. It is more important than ever to organize now.

Q: How can Justice for Jazz Artists persuade the club owners to negotiate on the subject of pensions, recording rights, and other issues of essential fairness to musicians?

The musicians involved in J4JA feel strongly that the issue of pension is of vital interest to the jazz community, as it addresses the pressing needs of older performers in the short term, and the dearth of retirement options for all side musicians in the long term. We know that contributions to the musicians’ pension fund will not happen without collective bargaining, and that, based on their record of intransigence, the clubs will most likely never enter into an agreement with the musicians union, AFM, Local 802, without an effective leverage campaign.

And there are other issues that are important to musicians besides pension, namely recording protections, wages and redress of grievances. Over the past three years we have increased our support among musicians tremendously, as well as among audience members who see our goals as just. When we hear someone say, “The clubs will never agree to this,” our answer is they will never agree unless we make a united effort, involving musicians, artists and audiences over an extended period of time. For years, the clubs refused to talk to us. Now that we have started leafleting and demonstrating in front of the clubs, we have received informal responses from almost all the clubs. The campaign has also begun to garner more attention by media outlets including the Huffington Post, the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the New York Times.

Q: Is there or isn’t there a tax waiver given to jazz clubs in order to pay for musicians’ pensions? NY State stopped collecting sales taxes on live music tickets, correct?

In 2006, Local 802 lobbied the NY State Legislature, with the support of several local jazz clubs, with the intent of passing legislation that would eliminate the sales tax on admission at night clubs in order to use that tax relief to create a resource stream for pension contributions. The trade association for the clubs, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, wrote a letter to then Governor Pataki dated May 5, 2005, supporting the legislation, stating, “A number of major clubs have agreed to direct the savings from the admission tax exemption to performers’ health and pension benefit funds to insure access to these important benefit programs.” The legislation was intended to benefit all musicians who played those clubs, irrespective of the musicians’ union affiliation. The tax law was passed in 2007. As a result, the Blue Note, Birdland, Jazz Standard, Iridium, the Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola and other small venues in this city (under 250 seats) are no longer required to pay sales tax on admission where food and drink are charged separately. This plan, however well intended, was seriously flawed in that there was no apparatus, once the tax relief was achieved, to make sure the club owners held up their part of the bargain. We estimate that the Village Vanguard, for example, now saves up to $80,000 a year as the result of this effort. The clubs benefited from the tax break, but now refuse to work with the union and create a way to redirect the money into pension.

Q: Is it really possible to get vested in the AFM pension fund solely by playing in the clubs?

A common misconception of our jazz campaign is that the final goal is to get the six major jazz clubs in New York to contribute to the pension fund on behalf of jazz musicians. In fact, the ultimate goal is to change the national landscape for single engagements in night clubs and other venues so that much of the field becomes covered by agreements that provide pension. A national circuit of single engagements that contribute to pensions will go a long way toward getting countless musicians vested in the pension fund. AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles) has joined our campaign and is opening a front on the West Coast. Soon other locals will join us as well. But even with just a few major clubs in New York, it is quite possible for a musician to become vested in the pension fund by playing a few weekly runs over a period of successive years. At a modest scale wage of say, $200 per show, a side musician would only have to play 15 nights per year for five years running to become vested in the fund. Many side musicians perform with different leaders and artists. Those musicians working these sorts of engagements on a regular basis would become vested in short order, if they are not vested already through other union work.

Q: Won’t this create excessive paperwork for the clubs?

The New York Times reported that some nightclubs have said that making pension contributions for musicians would be “an accounting nightmare.” But not one nightclub has inquired as to how contributions would be made, which would be a task so simple that a grade school student could accomplish it. Making pension contributions under a collective bargaining agreement would require a single check sent once a month attached to a spreadsheet listing musicians’ Social Security numbers. Nothing could be simpler. The union has agreements with scores of employers who do this all the time.

Q: Isn’t the best way to do this simply to make the bandleaders responsible for pension payments?

There are many reasons we are targeting the nightclubs—and not the bandleaders—as the responsible parties for pension payments, not the least of which adheres to the common sense notion of “following the money” if you want results. The best way to assure pension contributions for everybody is to seek them at the source of the revenue stream—and that source is the place that jazz club patrons lay down their money to hear live jazz. Another thing to consider is that to go after the bandleaders for pension contributions would be a logistical impossibility. Enforcing a contract with hundreds of leaders is not realistic, whereas keeping track of a few clubs is relatively simple. Enforcement is another consideration. Enforcing an agreement with countless leaders and artists is not practical, while a contract with the clubs would be eminently workable. Any adherence needed from leaders can be achieved through contractual arrangements with the clubs.

Q: The musician’s union pension fund requires “employer” contributions. Isn’t it reasonable for the clubs to fear being considered the employer of every musician who crosses their threshold?

New York State law specifically states that musicians must be treated as employees. Just who is labeled the employer of musicians in any given situation is a more complex issue. The J4JA campaign is not about identifying the employer in any given instance. Whether or not a club makes a pension contribution, that action in and of itself does not determine the status of the club as “employer” one way or the other.

Q: Isn’t it unjust to vilify clubs and club owners by painting them as greedy or actively working against the musicians they engage in their clubs?

If any of the major venues are offended, they should consider the fact that they have willfully violated the trust of the hundreds of prominent jazz musicians who celebrated in early 2007 when the tax law went through, as those musicians were under the impression, based on assurances given by the clubs, that they would benefit from those tax dollars in the form of pension contributions.

Q: Isn’t the union seeking merely to increase its membership amongst a number of disenfranchised jazz musicians by trying to bring these clubs under contract?

The union is always trying to increase its membership. A union’s power, obviously, is determined to a great extent by how many of its members work under contract in a given industry. This is one of the functions of union organizing. A union gains more members by becoming relevant to the trade in which it operates. If the union does well by musicians who play jazz, more jazz musicians will join the union. It’s a two-way street. The J4JA campaign was created by jazz musicians. Local 802 does not stand to gain more union members instantaneously should it win collective bargaining in the clubs. The union is an organization made up of musicians, and a great many of them play jazz gigs. The more successful we are at bringing benefits and fairness to jazz musicians, the more jazz musicians will want to join the union, and the stronger the union, the greater the likelihood that there will be additional gains for musicians in the jazz field. But union membership is not a prerequisite to being vested in the pension fund or receiving a pension.

The Issues, One at a Time:

Q: What about this issue of “Fair Pay”? Why hasn’t J4JA stated what it means by this?

J4JA has not defined “fair pay” because this is a matter to be negotiated with the clubs. What the union seeks is a basic scale wage, something that is common in union contracts with musicians. It is also common for side musicians to receive a certain amount of pay for an engagement, which might vary from leader to leader depending on his or her visibility, but which is only a fraction of the money the leader will receive for an evening’s work. A suggested minimum scale wage for all side musicians of $200, for example, is not going to break the bank at clubs like the Blue Note or Birdland. If enough clubs participate in the campaign, especially nationwide, the pension contributions generated could very well amount to a secure retirement for musicians who play many major venues every year. But there will always be different situations that demand different scales, depending on the number of musicians, the size and location of the venue, and the time and date of the performance.

Q: Why would internationally renowned jazz artists consent to perform for only $200? Would this function as a maximum?

This is a common misunderstanding: the union’s scale wages are not maximums, they are minimums. They are a floor to protect musicians from being underpaid. J4JA currently seeks the establishment of a minimum scale wage in jazz clubs as a means to securing pension contributions pegged to that scale. Hence, if they compute the pension as a percentage of a negotiated minimum scale, the pension should be affordable to most nightclub owners. But more renowned acts can always negotiate whatever rates they want, because the union doesn’t in any way prohibit musicians from making above scale.

Q: How does any musician, jazz or otherwise, think they’re going to achieve an adequate guaranteed pension, when most pensions have gone the way of the dinosaur, having been replaced with retirement funds?

There are 44 million Americans who are at present eligible or will be eligible for a defined benefit pension. Pensions have been and are still a good idea for working people. Business doesn’t like health care or sick leave or vacations or decent wages or Social Security, but when they are obligated to pay them, everyone is collectively better off. Just because pension funds are derided by Wall Street doesn’t mean they aren’t good for workers.

Q: Isn’t it highly unlikely that jazz musicians could build up a meaningful retirement income based on their work in the jazz clubs?

The national musicians union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) works in partnership with the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF), a very sound and healthy pension fund with assets upwards of $2 billion dollars. The AFM-EPF is projected to be solvent for the next 40 years. The good news for jazz musicians is that the fund already exists, and it doesn’t have to be built from scratch (The bad news is that the nightclubs are refusing to participate. That’s what this campaign is about!).

Vesting is relatively easy. A musician needs merely to earn $3,000 of covered earnings in each of five consecutive years with the allowance for what the fund refers to as “reasonable breaks in service” that won’t jeopardize vesting. How much pension payout a musician receives depends on how much work the musician does under contract over his or her career. Under the current formula (a formula with a multiplying factor that could conceivably increase) a musician making $50,000 a year could stand to receive $2,400 a month for life upon retirement if the musician worked for 40 years. Many musicians, of course, will make a fraction of that under contract, so a pension may translate to only $300 a month. But that’s $300 a month that most jazz musicians of retirement age are not receiving currently. This money could very well be the cushion to keep many a musician from falling on hard times. The Jazz Foundation of America, a charitable organization for jazz and blues musicians, routinely provides grants in similar increments to poverty stricken musicians. Pensions for jazz musicians would go a long way toward eliminating the need to rely on charity in lean times.

Q: What is it that J4JA wants the clubs to do for them regarding protection of recording rights? Every venue seems to be recording live performances nowadays. Why is this important?

Musicians are being ripped off right and left in the club scene by unscrupulous club owners who are recording them without their permission. If the leader signs a recording agreement with the club, there may be some small additional compensation agreed to, which may trickle down to the band. But the club then owns the master recordings in perpetuity, and can market them as they please, without seeking permission from the leader, let alone the side musicians, and without guarantee of further payments. Musicians need protection of their recording rights more than ever. If recordings are made under a union contract, even a basic archival agreement, those musicians would then stand to receive additional payments once the recordings were sold and/or distributed. And this is not to mention payments for new use or re-use, should the music end up being used in a different medium, such as on a television commercial or in a motion picture. Actors receive residuals every time their commercials get re-aired. Musicians deserve this same type of protection.

Q: Why do musicians need a “Process for Redressing Grievances”? Isn’t that what the union is for? What about small claims court?

The union can’t defend musicians without legally binding contracts in place; that is i.e.,—union contracts. Currently, the clubs don’t honor any union contracts. If the union had a contract with the clubs, the union would be able to enforce that contract and the exploitation of musicians would be far less commonplace. “Grievances” in this case merely means being able to discuss the issues that have been agreed to in a particular contract, such as wages, pension, and recording rights. Simply put, it’s a dispute resolution procedure, a mechanism that can save the musician (and the club) a lot of headaches.

Q: J4JA claims the clubs are getting rich while jazz musicians are living in poverty. Is that really true?

Using the Village Vanguard as an example, our research shows that the club brings in somewhere between $1 and $1.5 million per year in admission receipts (using conservative estimates). According to the formula we’ve been using, we can estimate that pension contributions for the Vanguard would amount to just over $19,000 per year. Consider the fact that the Village Vanguard, according to their own spokesperson, has been realizing a savings of some $80,000 a year from the tax waiver, money for which J4JA lobbied in Albany, and which was supposed to be earmarked for pensions. Had the Village Vanguard acted responsibly and ethically, and made pension contributions from out of that $80,000 surplus, they still would have been ahead of the game. It is shameful that they have not done so. Additionally, dozens of jazz musicians retire into poverty or semi-poverty every year, and the Jazz Foundation of America, a charity that supports blues and jazz musicians who have fallen on hard times, is busier than ever. This situation needs to change.


The notion of a movement towards a culture of self empowerment for jazz performers and away from the stasis of the current model, with its continued reliance on charity, shouldn’t be anathema to New York City club owners, many of whom have long standing in the community. After all, they have achieved their status as a direct result of their own entrepreneurial efforts, surely, but also due primarily to the exertions of the thousands of jazz musicians that they have engaged and celebrated over the years. We at Justice for Jazz Artists strongly believe that a culture of self-empowerment for jazz musicians is possible. It is in the best interest of the entire jazz community to realize the goals of this campaign, so we can achieve the justice long due the hard-working jazz musicians whose welfare and livelihood reside at the heart of the art form.