Campaign Seeks More Opportunities For Jazz Musicians to Earn Pensions

Volume CI, No. 11November, 2001

Natasha Jackson

The Jazz Foundation benefit concert held at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem on Sept. 24 lived up to its theme: it was truly “A Great Night in Harlem.” The lineup of jazz legends who participated made it a memorable event, and the concert raised awareness throughout the music community that something must be done to secure the futures of these artists.

Beyond raising thousands of dollars for the continued work of the Jazz Foundation, a non-profit advocacy group for jazz musicians, the benefit also provided contributions into the AFM Pension Fund on behalf of the more than 50 musicians who performed. The collective bargaining agreement signed for this event also included recognition of Limited Pressing Phonograph Recording wages, further increasing musicians’ benefits.

Collaborative efforts like this one with Local 802 have become an increasingly popular option for employers who realize the importance of providing benefits for musicians, even for one-time engagements. For several years, the Justice For Jazz Artists campaign has been working to identify opportunities to provide benefits for the variety of music services jazz musicians provide – festivals, concerts, recordings, teaching jobs, private engagements, theatre performances, etc. The objective has been to tailor an agreement that protects musicians and provides benefits as well as the flexibility needed for the very unique world of freelance jazz performers. Recently the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival became the first festival to sign a collective bargaining agreement, providing benefits for more than 70 musicians (see October Allegro).

Until more venues sign collective bargaining agreements as employers of all musicians hired to perform, it is up to musicians to collectively seek union representation and benefits. Single engagement agreements cover individual engagements. Because these agreements are negotiated again for each date, wages, pension and health benefits can improve with each contract. However, it can be a difficult way for musicians to ensure that much of the work they do is under a union agreement. In an ideal situation, a musician who did one recording a week, subbed for a Broadway show or performed a club date, and played a steady Monday night gig at a club, would earn benefits for all this work.

Agreements that cover single engagements, providing pension contributions job by job, are one answer to the dilemma faced by jazz musicians who perform little “union work.” Another approach is for musicians to take matters into their own hands and act as the employer, in order to sign collective bargaining agreements that provide benefits for all the musicians hired.

Working towards this goal, on Oct. 15 the Jazz Advisory Committee sponsored a seminar, “Incorporation Options for Jazz Musicians,” to answer questions and provide legal advice to musicians who hire their own bands and are interested in forming their own corporations. The seminar was attended by twelve working jazz musicians, who reported that it provided new and useful information.