Jazz musicians take the fight to City Hall

Volume 114, No. 10October, 2014

TESTIFYING: Local 802 member Jimmy Owens closes out his testimony before the New York City Council with a rendition of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Photo: William Alatriste

TESTIFYING: Local 802 member Jimmy Owens closes out his testimony before the New York City Council with a rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Photo: William Alatriste

Jazz artists may soon have a new ally on their side: New York City Council. Supporters of Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign gathered in mid-September to testify before a council committee in support of Resolution 207-A.

The resolution, which was sponsored by City Council members Jimmy Van Bramer, Laurie Cumbo and Corey Johnson, says that City Council “supports the Justice for Jazz Artists Campaign which seeks through collective bargaining to improve the lives of musicians working in New York City’s jazz clubs by addressing workplace issues, including providing retirement security.”

For many years, the top jazz artists in the world have lived and worked regularly in New York City, yet many older jazz musicians are forced to retire in poverty. Even those musicians who play frequently in the most prestigious and profitable jazz clubs are denied basic benefits and pensions. While musicians who play on Broadway and in orchestras are protected by union contracts, jazz musicians are not. And though the top jazz clubs in New York City profit greatly from the musicians who bring in their customers, the clubs have repeatedly refused to work with musicians to address pensions or any other work-related issues.

As Allegro readers well know by now, the union’s jazz campaign is dedicated to changing all of this.

At the hearing, council members heard testimony from musicians Jimmy Owens, Jimmy Cobb, Bob Cranshaw, Keisha St. Joan, Bertha Hope, Gene Perla and John Mosca, all of whom are members of Local 802.

Owens said, “If the clubs had implemented this plan five years ago, there would already have been up to $3 million redirected into a fund for musicians. That money would have gone a long way to helping people who have no savings to begin a retirement plan for themselves and their families. This money not only helps musicians, it helps to keep the music alive.”

Bob Cranshaw reiterated his staunch support for the jazz campaign’s goals when he said, “I have for years been advocating with the musicians’ union, particularly on the subject of pensions. I have seen countless musicians in crisis, people who were highly respected, incredibly talented people but who failed to prepare for their retirement due to a lack of benefits available to them. And that is still the case today.”

John Mosca stood up to support the campaign and offered first-hand testimony from someone who lives and works in NYC’s storied jazz clubs, including the Village Vanguard. “This plan would help a lot of people who work at the Vanguard and other jazz clubs, and the jazz musicians sorely need it,” said Mosca. “The clubs are our workspaces, and we should get benefits that other workers get on the job. I strongly urge you to support Resolution 207-A.”

Council member Jimmy Van Bramer said, “The Justice for Jazz Artists Campaign is about equity and addressing the inequalities that exist here in New York. Currently, there are hundreds of jazz artists struggling to make a living while performing one of our nation’s greatest art forms. By passing this resolution we aim to work with New York’s jazz venues to give the Justice for Jazz Campaign the momentum it needs to improve the lives of countless musicians. Together we can give our country’s best jazz artists the opportunity to earn pensions, protect recording rights and the fair pay they rightfully deserve.” Van Bramer is the council’s majority leader and is also chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee

Council member Corey Johnson said, “For too long, jazz musicians who play at some of New York’s most well-known clubs have not had the opportunity to attain workplace protections, including pensions.”

Johnson added, “I’m not proud that these clubs who have refused to negotiate are in my district. Jazz musicians deserve to retire with dignity, and clubs should work with musicians to give them the protections they deserve.”

Newly-elected council member Laurie Cumbo, who co-sponsored the resolution, spoke to the massive cultural contributions provided by jazz musicians to NYC culture and promised to continue to work for justice from her place in city government. “Jazz artists – both past and present – have significantly contributed to the unique cultural experience that attracts tourists and locals to venues across New York City annually.” Cumbo said. “These men and women are hard-working musicians who deserve economic stability and security to support themselves and their families. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the New York City Council to protect the livelihood of our musicians and ensure that the arts continue to flourish within our communities.”

Local 802 Recording Vice President John O’Connor told the council, “The fact that musicians who have provided us with one of the world’s great art forms have been deprived of a major benefit that musicians working in other fields take for granted is nothing short of a travesty. Though we must acknowledge the important role the clubs have made in advancing the art of jazz, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of those who employ these musicians to help correct the injustice. Local 802 is eager to work with any nightclub willing to do the right thing. We appeal to the City Council to pass Resolution 207-A to draw attention to this longstanding problem and help these deserving musicians correct this injustice.”

The resolution, which is non-binding, is expected to be taken up on the floor of the City Council for ratification sometime this month.

The jazz campaign is supported by hundreds of educators, writers and artists including Harry Belafonte, Christian McBride, Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Jason Moran, Jimmy Owens, Bob Cranshaw, John Pizzarelli, Bernard Purdie, Bill Frisell, Bobby Sanabria, Dan Morgenstern, Nat Hentoff, Dr. Lewis Porter, Pastor Michael A. Walrond, Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Dr. Judith Schlesinger, and a growing list of elected officials. See for a complete list of campaign endorsers and to learn how you can help.

A slightly different version of this article first appeared at Thanks to Laura Dolan and Todd Bryant Weeks.

From left, Jimmy Cobb, Keisha St. Joan, Bob Cranshaw and Bertha Hope all make their case why City Council should support Justice for Jazz Artists at a recent committee hearing. Photos: Kate Glicksberg.

From left, Jimmy Cobb, Keisha St. Joan, Bob Cranshaw and Bertha Hope all make their case why City Council should support Justice for Jazz Artists at a recent committee hearing. Photos: Kate Glicksberg.

Wade Barnes (1954-2012)

Wade Barnes (1954-2012)

Wade Barnes’ death reminds us why we need justice for jazz artists now

by Todd Bryant Weeks

Sometimes it takes a personal story to put it all in perspective. The tenor of the City Council testimony was encapsulated by an emotional appeal made by jazz pianist and bandleader Bertha Hope (pictured above), in memory of the jazz drummer Wade Barnes, a longtime Local 802 member, who died in 2012 at the age of 57. Barnes had suffered complications related to diabetes and died of a heart attack.

“Wade Barnes was a highly educated man and something of a jazz purist, and he was an extremely proud person,” recounted Hope. “He had no pension or health insurance when he lost his living space in 2012, and was reduced to sleeping in the back rooms of jazz clubs and on friends’ couches. He could not afford his diabetes medication, and often went without treatment rather than sit in an emergency room for six to eight hours waiting to be seen by a doctor.

“Throughout this period of decline he continued to work incessantly – dedicated as he was to his craft. Wade was a strong advocate for Justice for Jazz Artists. Had there been resources available to him, ones that were tied to all the work he did during his lifetime, he might be here with us today.

“Situations like this one were and are avoidable. Let’s find a way to work with the clubs to redirect some of the money brought by admission fees to the union pension fund. It’s not that difficult a thing to imagine, and it may be even less difficult to implement.”