Don’t Tax Jazz!

Guest Commentary

Volume CV, No. 7/8July, 2005

Assemblyman Denny Farrell

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

802 members Hank Jones (top) and Jimmy Owens performed with Slide Hampton in Albany.

My father was a dress designer who taught himself how to play the piano by ear and would play for his own amusement. Because of his profession, he was often invited to parties. I can recall a story he often told in which a former wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis invited him to a party she was hosting.

When he arrived at the party, he discovered the many of the other guests were legendary jazz musicians – including Duke Ellington! During the party, the hostess not only announced to the other guests that my father played the piano, but that he should perform. Sensing that all eyes were focused on him, he knew he would make a fool of himself playing in front of these jazz greats. But at the same time, he didn’t want to insult his host. Being a brave soul he opted to play the fool, and performed several songs for her guests. He survived the embarrassment, and left the party with a memory he would share for years. The love that my father had for music was passed down to me.

Although I never was a musician, I have a strong appreciation for music, especially for those who are talented enough to compose and perform. As a longtime resident of New York City – specifically Harlem – I have been familiar with the tremendous amounts of musicians that hail not only from this city, but across the state of New York.

We should be proud to be the home of many great artists and musical venues, which is why I felt the need to address a concern I have with our state’s tax law that directly affects some of our most treasured musical venues.

Earlier this year I met with members of Local 802. During our discussions I was informed of a section in New York’s current law that assesses a sales tax on the admission charge for cabarets.

Yet the law’s language does not assess that same tax on live musical performances, Broadway shows, operas and ballets.

This tax has become a burden on these venue owners who must not only pay the tax on their admission fee, but also a tax on the food and drink that they sell.

We believe this tax money could be better utilized in providing much-needed pension and/or health benefits for the performing musicians.

In April, I, along with my Assembly colleague Joe Morelle and Senate colleague George Maziarz, introduced legislation that would remove the sales tax from the admission fees at these cabarets and other similar venues, as long as the prices for food and beverages are separately stated from the admission fee and are reasonably priced.

As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, one of my daily responsibilities is to analyze laws that fiscally involve the state.

Keeping New York as a viable location for musicians is crucial to these cabarets remaining a vibrant part of New York’s performing arts industry.

To draw further attention to this legislation, the bill’s two other sponsors and I hosted a jazz performance for the state legislature in Albany in early June. I think the event brought this legislation into the spotlight and put the focus on the owners and musicians that will benefit.

Among those performing were the Hank Jones Trio, Slide Hampton and Jimmy Owens – all Local 802 members.

It is our hope that the bill will continue to gain support and sponsorship this year, so that New York can continue to be a musical vanguard.

Herman “Denny” Farrell, Jr. is a 31-year veteran of the New York Assembly. He represents the 71st Assembly District, which encompasses West Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood.