Justice for Jazz Artists shook up the owners of the Jazz Standard in July and August by leafleting several key establishments owned and operated by the Union Square Hospitality Group.
The company, which is headed by top New York-based restaurateur Danny Meyer, has been running the Jazz Standard since October 2001. The club features some of the most prominent artists in the world – but Meyer has refused to meet with Local 802 to discuss our most basic proposals. These include contributions to the musicians’ pension fund, and a discussion about basic issues of fairness, such as recording rights for performers who play the club. Even an overture from a prominent national politician could not get Meyer to return our calls.
So on June 27, July 25 and Aug. 7, demonstrators and musicians performed for patrons in front of the Madison Square Park location of the Shake Shack, a popular fast food chain owned by Meyer’s group.
While demonstrators passed out leaflets alerting diners to the injustice that jazz performers experience at the hands of clubs like the Jazz Standard and the Blue Note, a crack New Orleans-style brass band played favorites like “Avalon” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” to the enthusiastic applause of patrons and passersby.
During the two earlier demonstrations, protestors then moved on to set up in front of the Jazz Standard on East 27th Street, where they were met with either indignation or silence. Hundreds of leaflets encouraging patrons to e-mail their concerns to Meyer and partners were distributed at both events. During the second demonstration on July 25, wait staff attempted to mollify demonstrators by offering them lemonade. While some partook, others refused and one demonstrator asked the question, “Any pension in that lemonade?” Jazz Standard employees were not amused.
On Aug. 7, a group of demonstrators – including pianist Bertha Hope and vocalist Keisha St. Joan – began a march with live music at Madison Square Park, where they again leafleted the Shake Shack. Later that same evening, the group of marchers leafleted two more locations owned by Meyer: the Gramercy Tavern and the Union Square Café. Several hundred leaflets were distributed, and many patrons and passersby signed our Justice for Jazz Artists petition on the spot, utilizing their smartphones.
This kind of pressure marks a turning point in our campaign, which is now fighting on multiple fronts to convince jazz club owners to do the right thing. A previous protest this spring brought activists to the townhouse owned by a longtime partner of the Blue Note.
The majority of NYC musicians who perform in the city’s major jazz clubs – unlike their musical colleagues on Broadway and in the symphonic field – are denied basic state statutory benefits such as unemployment insurance, social security contributions and workers’ compensation, not to mention other important benefits like pension or health insurance. Every year, dozens of jazz musicians retire from the music business with no safety net and are forced to rely on charitable donations to support them at the end of their lives.
The AFM pension fund represents the most necessary, substantive and accessible benefit for artists who work in area clubs, and one that owners could easily pay for by making contributions for all performers who appear in their venues.
There is at least one other important issue. Most high-end jazz venues in the NYC area record the performances that take place in their clubs. Although clubs may offer musicians some limited compensation for this recording, rarely are intellectual property rights provided for, and musicians generally have no recourse should those recordings be released or sold. Compare that with union recording agreements, which provide for “new use” or “re-use” payments. These represent guaranteed compensation should musicians’ recorded performances appear in other markets, such as on soundtracks for films or in commercials. In contrast, the jazz club owners don’t provide these guarantees. Instead, they effectively exploit the performers’ willingness to appear in their venues, and so pressure musicians to record for free or for little compensation.
It goes further than this. Many clubs cut deals with radio stations or Webcasters that allow them to capture and broadcast (or stream) performances. Jazz musicians are particularly vulnerable in these instances. Their improvised solos can end up on the Internet, with no provisions for royalties and no contract to protect them should someone decide to “borrow” or sample their music. On the other hand, if there were a union contract in place, signatories could be held liable for unauthorized sale or distribution of recordings.
Besides the Jazz Standard, Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group also own The Modern, located in the Museum of Modern Art, Untitled at the Whitney, and Maialino at the Gramercy Park Hotel. The company’s Shake Shack chain has locations in New York City (including Citi Field), the Saratoga Race Course, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Westport, Istanbul, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi, Doha and London.
The business does not share financial information, but in 2010, its annual revenue was estimated by CNBC to be $70 million. It is most likely significantly higher today.
Prominent public supporters of the Justice for Jazz Artists Campaign include mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophone star Joe Lovano. That list is growing daily. Over 7,500 musicians and fans have signed our online petition, and more than 58,000 people have “liked” us on Facebook.
More outdoor demonstrations are planned for the weeks ahead.
If you have not already done so, please sign our petition at www.JusticeForJazzArtists.org, where you can send an e-mail to Danny Meyer and other club owners in support of the campaign, and make sure to “like” the campaign’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JusticeForJazzArtists. If you use Twitter, search for us at #J4JA.