Justice for Jazz Artists!

Union continues pension campaign in local clubs

Todd Bryant Weeks
Click for larger image.
Jazz artists deserve pension. Local 802 is trying to organize jazz clubs to contribute to musicians’ retirement security. Jamming above at Birdland are Luiz Simas and “Sweet Sue” Terry. Photo by Bernie Dechant.

Jazz artists deserve to retire in dignity. That’s the message of Local 802’s continuing “Justice for Jazz Artists!” campaign, which seeks to win contributions to the AFM pension fund for musicians who work in New York City clubs.

Recently, the union submitted a letter to 10 area club owners, making the union’s case for pension benefits. The clubs on the union’s hot list include the Blue Note, Birdland, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, Iridium, Jazz Standard, Kitano, Le Poisson Rouge, Smoke, Sweet Rhythm and the Village Vanguard.

Where would these clubs get the money to pay pension to musicians? Two years ago, the union succeeded in repealing an 8.375 percent tax on music admission that clubs had been required to pay to the state. The union’s position is that this windfall could painlessly be paid into the musicians’ pension plan at little or no cost to the club owners.

The 2006 repeal of the tax was achieved through an extensive lobbying effort by Local 802 with the sponsorship of Denny Farrell, chair of the State Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

A year earlier, a delegation from the union met with Farrell and club owners — including the Blue Note’s Steve Bensusan — to discuss the pending legislation. At that time, the majority of owners expressed wholehearted support for the repealed tax. The repeal was effective in spring 2007. 

Since the legislation passed, however, club owners have refused to honor their part of the bargain, arguing that the new legislation did not compel them to do anything with their new tax break. It only mandated that they no longer pay it to New York State.

The Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee is refusing to accept this as an answer and has begun to reach out to members and nonmembers alike to garner support.

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Dave Glasser

“The tax was repealed in order to enable pension contributions for working musicians without the clubs having to decrease their profit margin,” saxophonist Dave Glasser told Allegro. “Now it’s simply a matter of getting the logistics worked out so that the repealed taxes go to the musicians’ pension as intended.” Glasser, a Local 802 member, plays in the clubs and is also a part-time faculty member at the New School, where Local 802 has a contract with jazz instructors.

The issue is decidedly complex. “Club owners deserve to be commended for their efforts to present this music in what is certainly a minimal slice of the marketplace,” said Glasser. “Still, they are shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t realize that anything that helps a musician support him or herself is in the long term interest of everyone in the business.” 

The union’s main argument continues to be both ethical and economic. By participating in a plan that would allow for the former door tax to be diverted towards pension, the club owners would be giving jazz musicians a significant opportunity to save for their retirement. That’s a luxury that the large majority of jazz artists have never known but one that is standard for most union members.

For a jazz musician with little or no savings, a monthly pension check starting at age 65 could mean the difference between leaving the profession altogether or continuing with an active career.

In fact, the AFM pension fund actually contributes to the preservation of jazz as part of our cultural infrastructure, a concept that the club owners undoubtedly share, and one in which they have their own highly personal stake.

“Customers come to a jazz club for the music,” Jazz Advisory Committee member “Sweet Sue” Terry told Allegro. “The AFM pension fund is the way many musicians will make ends meet when they reach retirement age. When club owners invest their former tax funds into the pension fund — as the legislation intended — everybody wins.” 

Local 802 has been working hard for us and I am totally on board. Clubs and club owners come and go but we are here for the duration and need to feel secure about our future. The music speaks for itself and I’m glad Local 802 is speaking for all of us on this matter.
— Joe Lovano, saxophonist and  member of Local 802 

“The basic reason that jazz clubs should be paying this repealed tax money into the musicians’ pension fund is that it is the correct thing to do,” said trumpeter Jimmy Owens. “With the repeal of the tax, clubs will have that money that was collected to meet this pension contribution and it will cost them nothing from their profits.” Owens is the Jazz Advisory Committee’s liaison to the union’s Executive Board.

The current effort also seeks to resolve a long standing employer/employee issue. According to New York state law, musicians have to be treated as employees with the proper payment of state unemployment and disability insurance. Local 802 has discussed this issue with the New York State Department of Labor and determined that the forgiven door tax would be enough to cover not only a healthy pension contribution but the unpaid state statutory benefits as well. This would allow business in the clubs to go on as usual.

Even with this added incentive, no club owner has agreed to meet with Local 802 as of this writing.

Over the last year, Local 802 has secured the signatures of 150 prominent jazz artists in support of the “Justice for Jazz Artists!” campaign. The union’s Jazz Department plans to present this petition to club owners with the intention of securing meetings on the issue. If there is still no response, 802 will begin a grassroots organizing campaign designed to bring the fight to the club owners in their own backyards.

Despite the hurdles, Glasser, Terry and others remain upbeat. “I hope musicians and club owners can continue to work together,” said Terry, “so we can nurture the love of this great music that we all share.” 

Todd Bryant Weeks is the union’s jazz rep; he can be reached at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 185. The union’s jazz team also includes Jimmy Owens, Bob Cranshaw and Bill Dennison. (Owens is the Jazz Department’s liaison to the Executive Board; Cranshaw is the union’s Jazz Consultant, and Dennison is the union’s Recording Vice President and supervisor of the Jazz Department.)


Jazz musicians are hoping that clubs will used their new tax break to pay into their pensions. But it’s not a new idea. New York City used to impose a 5 percent tax on admission to Broadway shows. In 1960, facing an  actors’ strike, the city agreed to repeal that tax if the theatre owners and producers would use it to pay into actors’ and  musicians’ pensions. The exact formula was worked out by an arbitrator named Burton Turkus, so today this pension system is known as the Turkus award.


TO: New York’s jazz club owners and operators
FROM: The New York City jazz community

Over the past two years, Local 802 and the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee worked hard to convince New York State to eliminate the sales tax on admission to jazz clubs. They succeeded with the expectation of state legislators that the union and the clubs would use this tax relief money to provide pension benefit contributions for the performing jazz artists.

Like millions of other working people and thousands of other musicians we also need the security of a pension, in this case through the American Federation of Musicians and Employers Pension Fund. Those of us signed above urge you, the club owners and operators, to work with the union to put this tax relief money to the best possible use for those of us who perform in your clubs.

Thank you!
Signed by 150 jazz musicians