Building Trust

How the union is stepping up its Justice for Jazz Artists campaign

Volume CIX, No. 7/8July, 2009

Todd Bryant Weeks
Junior Mance
Junior Mance is part of the solution: he’s a member of the union’s Jazz Advisory Committee.

When we regard our local with an unclouded eye, one of the things with which we must come to terms is the notion that despite our shared vision of a democratic, unbiased body that serves all of its members equally; despite the fact that Local 802 has always been an integrated local; despite the fact that over the years 802 has bucked societal trends by having integrated governing boards; and despite the fact that in recent decades the local has reached out to jazz artists with the formation of a Jazz Advisory Committee – despite all this, the local is still learning how best to advocate for those who play vernacular music, and for our members of color.

One way 802 can achieve greater advocacy for these performers is by providing access to meaningful benefits.

For those older members who are not vested in the AFM pension fund, getting retirement benefits is an unlikely scenario, even for those who are still working.

Still, most elders I’ve spoken with are in favor of our Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, which seeks to provide a pension for jazz performers where no benefits have been previously available: the New York City clubs. The campaign has begun to gather momentum this summer and we expect to really ramp it up this fall.

Historically, musicians have rarely enjoyed union benefits while working in clubs. Even when union contacts exist, no artist works at any one club with enough frequency to secure eligibility in either the Local 802 Health Benefits Plan or the AFM 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 is typical for many.

In order for jazz musicians to have access to benefits, more of their work from different types of work 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. Adding benefits from the clubs would be another important step towards meaningful benefits.


When the AFM was at its peak membership in the 1950’s, vernacular music like jazz took a back seat to the concert field and Broadway, and the union’s neglect of the jazz field 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 dues on every gig we played.”

This climate of indifference began to change in the early 1980’s, as then 802 President John Glasel, who was a Broadway musician, 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 1990’s, Jimmy Owens, Benny Powell, Bob Cranshaw and Jamil Nasser formed the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee to address the inequities that had plagued jazz performers who were unionized – and those who weren’t but who wanted to take advantage of collective bargaining agreements and benefits programs.

Jimmy Owens remembers it this way. “It was a case of benign neglect,” Owens said. “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, the pension fund was kept a closely guarded secret.”

As the clubs foundered in the 1960’s, 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. Many musicians felt that both the country and the union had turned away from them.

A decade later, in an attempt to bring some equity to the New York club scene, the Jazz Advisory Committee, with the enormous help and support of New York City Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell Jr. as well as upstate legislators George Maziarz and Joseph Morrelle, succeeded in getting a bill passed in Albany that allowed for an abatement of the sales tax normally charged on admission to small venues.

Like the earlier Turkus Award (the forgiven 1963 Broadway ticket tax utilized for Broadway employee benefits and still in effect today) the door tax dollars were now free to be contributed to the AFM Pension Fund.

The clubs, especially Birdland, the Blue Note, Iridium and the Jazz Standard, all agreed to support the 2007 lobbying effort by the union, but when the law was passed, the club owners balked.

Some felt that they would be deemed “employers” through their association with the fund, and thus would be liable for state statutory benefits like unemployment, workers’ comp, and disability insurance.

Others simply refused to participate, stonewalling any attempts by Local 802 to seek their co-operation.

Since the law as written did not actually compel the owners to do anything, the club owners were not violating any laws by refusing to redirect the tax. Even after the union successfully addressed the statutory benefits piece of the puzzle, allowing for a scenario where contributions could be made even as business in the clubs went on as usual, owners have yet to agree to sit down and discuss a resolution with the union.

Again, the jazz musicians found themselves on the outside looking in.

This summer, Local 802 hopes to move hearts and minds on this issue with two simple words – “Justice” and “Jazz.”

At this writing, the Jazz Advisory Committee has gathered over 400 signatures of prominent jazz artists in support of the campaign, and has put together a growing coalition of endorsers including the Jazz Ministry at St. Peter’s Church, New York City Central Labor Council, Jazz Foundation of America, New School Jazz Department Faculty Committee, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition and prominent music writers, including Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and Gary Giddins.


For some artists for whom these efforts may be too little, too late, there must be continued advocacy.

If they are unable to access basic benefits programs due to past inequities, then we all have an obligation to these senior members of our musical community; at the very least we should do what we can to promote their music and their legacy and ensure their comfort and security in their later years.

For those younger musicians who work night after night in local clubs with no benefits, Justice for Jazz Artists will have a real and lasting impact.