Jazz is the Backbeat of New York City

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume CIX, No. 11November, 2009

Bill Dennison

The jazz rally on Sept. 29 brought out the best in us. Photo by Enid Farber.

Jazz musicians – and clubs – need our help to make sure they’re both supported

Jazz lives! On Sept. 29, Local 802 and the Jazz Advisory Committee held an historic event at Judson Memorial Church to highlight the importance of jazz to our city and to launch a public campaign to insure that more jazz artists have access to union benefits and protections. (See story on page 3.)

Our goals are:

  1. Make union benefits accessible to jazz musicians working in clubs as they are to so many other New York professional musicians.
  2. Do so without changing the current operations and business models of the smaller venues that present live jazz performance.
  3. Increase awareness of the importance of this music to the culture and economy of our city and state.

Two years ago we were successful in convincing the state to eliminate the tax on the cover charge to clubs with the goal of using these former tax revenues for musicians benefits.

The purpose of the law as passed and signed into law was to “ensure that all venues offering live musical or dramatic arts performances are allowed the same exemptions, providing those members of the entertainment industry with similar benefits.”

We’re working now to find the mechanisms to make that possible.

More than 2,500 musicians and their supporters have signed a petition urging that the clubs work with us to make it happen.

We have begun some off-the-record talks with clubs and we appreciate their willingness to have such a discussion. This is a completely new relationship and the first step is to build a level of trust based on the recognition that there are clearly common interests and goals.

I want to thank several people who were key to the success of the event at Judson Memorial.

  • Senior Pastor Amandus J. Derr of St. Peter’s Church and director of its jazz ministry has lent his support from the beginning and his remarks were especially appreciated.
  • Our thanks to poet, historian and jazz supporter Amiri Baraka, who spoke with passion about the role of this music in our culture.
  • City Councilmember Alan Gerson and State Assembly member Inez Barron shared their support.
  • We thank City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for the letter she sent to all the parties urging productive discussions that would allow “jazz musicians access to important benefit programs.”
  • And I want to thank the Jazz Advisory Committee and staff at Local 802 who worked tirelessly to make the event a success.

It’s useful to recall that our efforts today are built on struggles going back more than 25 years.

Soon after John Glasel became president of Local 802 in 1983, he began a campaign to eliminate the restrictive New York City cabaret laws that had been in place for decades.

Those laws restricted the number of musicians who could perform in city clubs and even limited the instrumentation that was allowed.

A multi-year campaign finally forced the courts to rule the cabaret laws unenforceable. That victory has allowed live music to flourish in our city’s clubs.

In 1987, a campaign led by Judy West, who was the union’s public relations director at the time, succeeded in convincing the state legislature to specifically list musicians as employees for purposes of state labor law, unemployment insurance, and disability and worker compensation insurance coverage. This too was an important victory that extended these important statutory benefits to all musicians.

During the administration of President Moriarity, Local 802 succeeded in organizing resident jazz orchestras — including the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra — as well as instructors at the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program.

Today we are building on those victories.

In eliminating the sales tax on admission to the clubs, the state was merely extending to these venues the same tax rules applied to larger venues, essentially making the clubs a real part of the city’s entertainment scene and recognizing that the clubs have become a vital part of the city’s cultural and economic life.

There is simply nowhere else in the world one can go and find the depth and breadth of live jazz performance. It’s a jazz festival every night of the week and it’s the reason fans come to our city from all over the world. It also helps fuel the hotel, restaurant and travel industries.

The most important parts of this cultural and economic asset are the musicians and the clubs. The needs of each have to be respected.

Musicians need the stability and protection of both pensions and statutory benefits.

The clubs need the recognition and support of our city and state.

Part of that support is promoting our city as the world’s destination for live jazz performance. That is also an issue we intend to pursue.

One thing’s for sure: jazz lives!