Jazz Injustice: A History

by Todd Bryant Weeks

When you’re a jazz musician living in New York City, you’re jumping into the air without a net. In America, history has shown that musicians, especially jazz musicians, really have to fight. They have to fight for the music—to get through the good and bad times. I ask my students, what they think about a future in the music business. Not just how to get the next gig, but what will they gain later in life?
—Jason Moran on Justice for Jazz Artists, International Musician, July 2013
A Hollow Victory

In 2007, the organization Justice for Jazz Artists celebrated what appeared to be a clear victory in its fight to get retirement benefits for jazz artists.

A seemingly triumphant campaign—endorsed and led by preeminent jazz musicians such as Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens, Reggie Workman and Randy Weston; respected writers Nat Hentoff, Gary Giddins, Dan Morgenstern and Amiri Baraka; and public officials including New York City Councilmember Diana Reyna, former Mayor David Dinkins and New York State Assembly Ways and Means Committee Chairman Herman “Denny” Farrell, to name a few—resulted in the passage of a state law allowing for a tax break for club owners on the revenue they receive from admission charges.

The intention of this law was to allow club owners to continue to collect the tax dollars and redirect them into the musicians’ pension fund on behalf of all the musicians that played in their venues. Sounds good, right?

Nearly seven years have gone by and jazz musicians still are being deprived of the fruits of this legislative victory — club owners have made zero contributions to the musicians’ pension fund.

How Much Injustice Have Jazz Musicians Experienced?

Jazz musicians may appear to represent a small minority in the music industry today. But the hard numbers tell a different story.

In 2007, NYC Performance Arts Spaces conducted a survey of area musicians to determine how, when and where they made their living. According to the study Where Can We Work?, which interviewed 361 New York City musicians, 31% worked in the jazz field. Many of these performers also worked in other genres including the pop, Broadway and classical arenas.

The study, which quoted various experts including the celebrated New Yorker magazine writer and author Alex Ross and the guitarist/activist Marc Ribot, looked at the availability of work. “Clubs that feature jazz in New York City are overwhelmed with musicians who want to play,” stated one respondent, “and they know they have a buyer’s market.”i

Ross commented on the flourishing experimental scene on NYC’s Lower East Side. “There’s more new music in the city than ever before,” wrote Ross in 2007, “and an exceptionally vital group of young composers is driving the proliferation of the new music.”ii

No Union, No Power

Jazz remains a healthy part of the NYC live music economy. Tens of thousands of fans travel to New York every year to hear live jazz in what is recognized as one of the music’s global hubs. Current research supports the notion of thousands of jazz musicians actively plying their trade on the NYC mainstream scene: one club alone, the Blue Note (based on a conservative estimate), employs 2,800 musicians annually.iii

Jazz has been recognized by the U.S. Congress as “America’s National Treasure,”iv and clubs like Birdland, the Jazz Standard, Iridium and Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note are still filling seats and charging healthy (some would say steep) ticket prices for national and international acts.v Although they don’t receive benefits, top tier band leaders and their side musicians often pull in decent money in these venues.vi

Yet because most New York City jazz clubs don’t work with the union, without the protection of contracts that provide for scale wages that can’t be negotiated down (only up), and rules around the use of recordings, grievances and arbitration, and of course, benefits, these musicians are essentially on their own. When you factor in that they are generally paid as 1099 Independent Contractors, they are essentially being asked to carry the full burden of their Social Security benefit, rather than split the payments with the club owner. Not exactly an equitable arrangement.

In many instances, musicians are simply paid in cash, and remain open to audit by the State Department of Labor or the IRS.

Plight of African-American Musicians

While these issues impact jazz musicians of all backgrounds, historically the exploitation of jazz performers can be seen as part of a larger pattern of injustice endured by African American musicians in this country.

From the days of traveling vaudeville and tent shows through to the modern Civil Rights Era, black musicians were disproportionately subjected to abject racism including second-class lodgings and travel accommodations, particularly in the Deep South. Pit bands, especially those made up of blacks, from whence many of the early jazz ensembles sprung were often treated as a lower caste by more visible actors, singers and dancers.

Myriad accounts of jazz musicians being exposed to racist harassment and violence stretch back to the music’s beginnings. Some of the greatest jazz artists of the last century were among the most exploited—or were effectively discarded when they grew old and could not earn a living. In 1938, an elderly Joe “King” Oliver, a renowned performer with an international reputation and perhaps the most influential American jazz musician before Louis Armstrong, was discovered in Atlanta, Georgia, destitute and working as a street vendor.vii

With the advent of the recording industry in the 1910s, African-American musicians were almost never fully informed of their rights regarding publishing and recording royalties. Managers, promoters, agents and producers regularly stole from artists by fraudulently adding their own names to recording contracts as composers, lyricists and arrangers. Artists’ royalties, when they were paid, were almost uniformly grossly inaccurate.

During the 1930s and ‘40s, the deftly talented African-American pianist-composer-arranger Mary Lou Williams routinely fought for publishing royalties for her original compositions, but rarely won.viii Without expensive legal representation, jazz musicians were easy targets for unethical, predatory show business “gadflies” who well understood the business of defrauding the artists, whose main concern lay in creating and performing, not in accounting.

Racism was endemic, and even the most successful musicians were victimized. Stories of abuse are a routine part of the culture. Even Miles Davis, an iconic figure if ever there was one, was savagely beaten by a policeman in front of a major New York club where he was headlining because he refused to “move on.”ix

Although the racial climate is very different today, jazz musicians of all stripes are still uninformed as to their rights in the workplace. Before reform in the 1980s, the union was not focused on organizing these musicians due to a culture of “narcissism” and the fact that for years, 802 primarily employed an administrative model, which meant that they simply maintained their agreements on Broadway, in the Symphonic Field and with Record Labels. The local did not need to seek new members, and jazz was considered not worth organizing. Unfortunately, the issues for jazz artists are as stark today as ever. There are still well-known performers who cannot afford to keep their homes, or whose finances are decimated when they become ill with no safety net.

Club Owners: All Revenue and No Responsibility

Musicians still are subject to shady deals where promoters book bands into clubs, only to make promises to owners that they have no intention of keeping. Headliners will be promised and not produced at show time and then the owner will refuse to pay the promoter the promised amount. Gigs are cancelled without notice and guarantees are ignored. The musicians are always the ones to suffer in these situations, as they are invariably underpaid. Because band leaders are often the ones who negotiate the contract, it has become a standard industry practice for musicians not to know what their fellow band mates are receiving in wages. This generally works to the owners’ benefit.

Notwithstanding the fact that a club owner may often dictate “house policies” as to when a band should start and stop playing, what the musicians may or may not wear, and even, in some cases, what type of music the band is to play, these owners have never been required to take on real responsibility —like that of paying musicians independently on a W-2 or helping to ensure the musicians overall security by paying into state statutory benefits like Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability and workers’ compensation.

At this writing, there are scores of “retired” jazz performers here in New York who can barely make ends meet, living hand to mouth with little or no Social Security, and no other discernible safety net. The musicians rely on direct assistance from entities like the Local 802 Musicians’ Assistance Program or the Jazz Foundation of America. Because there historically has been a lack of advocacy for jazz artists, a culture of charity has sprung up. But there are far more needy cases than there are charitable dollars to ameliorate suffering.

Despite the fact that the New York City musicians’ local has always been racially integrated; despite the fact that over the years Local 802 has bucked societal trends by having integrated governing boards; and despite positive, progressive action in recent decades including the formation of a Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee – despite all this, the union is still learning how best to advocate for those who play vernacular music, and for people of color.

Jazz musicians have rarely, if ever, enjoyed union benefits while working in the clubs. Even when union contracts exist, no artist works at any one club with enough frequency to secure eligibility in either the union’s health benefits plan or the American Federation of Musicians’ pension fund from that employment alone.

Club owners have also found various ways to get around agreements, especially if they are conducting a cash business, which for years was the industry standard.

A respected big band trumpeter, Leo Ball, once related a story about how he had tried to come together with his band mates to organize a local venue, the now defunct Red Blazer.

“We got more than 50% of the musicians at the Red Blazer to agree to sign union cards,” remembered Ball, “and then we went to the owner to set up a negotiation. He said he was all for it, but he was forbidden by the state to negotiate with the union since he was in Chapter 11.

“I asked him how long he’d been in Chapter 11,” said Ball with a sad smile.

“Since I opened,” was the blunt response.x

Obstructions to Union Organization

In order for jazz musicians to have access to benefits, more of their work (from different revenue sources, and from a wider number of venues) needs to be organized. The union has successfully organized some resident jazz orchestras, several tours and bandleaders, as well as teaching employment, as well as teaching artists. But adding benefits from the clubs is crucial to the economic stability for all who work in this field.

When the AFM was at its peak membership in the 1950’s, vernacular music like jazz took a back seat to the classical field and Broadway musicals. The union’s neglect of jazz was often perceived by musicians as being anti-black.

The bassist and educator Dr. Larry Ridley recalls, “I’ve been in the union since 1960. As African-American musicians, we always had to fight to get the respect we deserved, even within our own union. Black musicians back then looked at the union as being insensitive to our needs – even as locals in every town, big and small, still demanded union dues on every gig we played.”xi

This climate of indifference began to change in the early 1980s, as then 802 President John Glasel, who was a Broadway musician (and a jazz trumpet player) worked to repeal the daunting cabaret laws that hamstrung musicians by prohibiting small venues and restaurants from hiring more than three performers at a time, and by excluding percussion and horn players from many gigs.

In the early 1990s, Jimmy Owens, the late Benny Powell, Bob Cranshaw and Jamil Nasser (all African Americans) formed the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee to address the inequities that had plagued unionized jazz performers as well as non-union players who wanted access to collective bargaining agreements and benefits programs.

Jimmy Owens remembers it this way. “It was a case of benign neglect. That’s a nice way of putting it. The union and the musicians didn’t really look to secure the kinds of protections that should have been made available to all musicians. And, what was worse,” recalls Owens, “the pension fund was kept a closely guarded secret.”xii

As rock became dominant in the 1960s, and jazz clubs began to founder, some jazz artists were able to make a living by working in studio bands, recording jingles or playing in pit orchestras. Others sought refuge in Europe, where state-funded venues and a healthy appreciation for American vernacular music had created a vibrant, and expanding, jazz scene.

Major jazz venues folded, but others sprung up in their wake. Clubs like the Blue Note and Birdland filled voids left by The Cookery, the Village Gate and the Half Note.

The Push for Pension Begins

By 2006, in an attempt to bring some equity to the New York club scene, the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee, with the help and support of State Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr. of Harlem as well as upstate legislators George Maziarz and Joseph Morelle, succeeded in getting a bill passed in Albany that allowed for an abatement of the sales tax normally charged on admission to small performance venues.

It was to function like the earlier Turkus Award—the 1963 waiver of taxes on tickets to Broadway shows to augment Broadway workers’ union benefits, one that is still in effect today. In 2007, the tax on door charges at jazz clubs was repealed, and the clubs now had the opportunity to make contributions to the AFM Pension Fund.

But then, nothing happened.

Since the law as written did not actually compel the owners to make that transfer, the club owners were not violating any laws by refusing to redirect even a portion of the former tax to fund basic benefits.

Yet again, the jazz musicians have found themselves on the outside looking in.

Now’s the Time!

In the coming months, Local 802 hopes to move hearts and minds on this issue by pairing two simple words: “Justice” and “Jazz.”

At this writing, Justice for Jazz Artists has gathered over 6,000 signatures of jazz musicians and fans in support of the campaign, and has put together a growing coalition of high profile endorsers. We recently also reached the significant milestone of 57,000 likes on Facebook.

What’s more, we continue to attract the support of prominent artists, elected officials, critics and music educators. Recent public endorsers include: Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, Bobby Sanabria, NY City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Michael Abene, David Amram and Christian McBride.

If we all work together, economic justice can become a reality for those musicians who now work night after night in local clubs with no benefits—and Justice for Jazz Artists! can and will have a real and lasting impact.

i. “Where Can We Work?” Study completed in 2007 by NYC Performance Arts Spaces, page 38.
ii. Alex Ross, “Club Acts: New York’s vital new-music scene,” The New Yorker, (16 April 2007),
iii. Study conducted by Local 802 Organizing Department, Organizing Director, Leon Bell, January
2012. This figure represents the number of “services” or appearances made by individual jazz
musicians, rather than the actual number of individuals working at the club over a given year—as one artist may appear many times during that period. However, almost all New York City jazz clubs are non-union. The exceptions are the Café Carlisle, and 54 Below which expects to sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement with Local 802 in 2013.
iv. H.R. 57 passed by the House of Representatives September 23, 1987; passed by the Senate December 4, 1987. http://www.hr57.org/hconres57.html
v. In the case of the Blue Note, the average cover charge is around $51.00. This figure factors in the venue’s higher New Year’s Eve ticket prices which ranged from $75-$150; average ticket prices throughout the year at the Blue Note and other clubs range from $25-$50. Most clubs feature two sets of music nightly, and clear the room between sets. Study conducted by Local 802 Organizing Department, Organizing Director, Leon Bell, January 2012.
vi. The Blue Note, based on a conservative estimate, takes in a gross figure of $7 to $9 million annually in cover charges and food and drink sales. Pension contributions for all the performers who work there during the course of one year would amount to less than $75,000 annually. This is equivalent to about 1% of the club’s annual income, before taxes. Study conducted by Local 802 Organizing Department, Organizing Director, Leon Bell, January 2012.
vii. Williams, Martin, “King Oliver,” A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1961, 7.
viii. Dahl, Linda, “Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams,” Berkley: University of California Press, 1999, passim.
ix. Davis, Miles with Quincy Troupe, “Miles, The Autobiography,” New York: Touchstone, 1989, 238-240.
x. Leo Ball, in a conversation with the author, August 2007. Ball died in December 2007.
xi. Larry Ridley, from an interview with the author as published in Allegro Volume CIX, No. 7/8 July 2009.