Learning from History

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 113, No. 2February, 2013

John O'Connor
Benny Powell

The trombonist Benny Powell addressing a meeting of musicians in New York City, sometime in the 1980’s. Powell was active in the union’s jazz campaign until his death, at the age of 80, in 2010.

When we think of Black History Month, it is impossible in this business not to think of the history of jazz and its creators and practitioners. From its origins in blues and spirituals in the southern United States and its assemblage in the horn-based bands of New Orleans, jazz derived its soul from the struggle of African people to free themselves from the system that enslaved and brought them to America. It is not radical in the least to say that without this struggle, jazz would not exist.

There are those who have observed that the Civil Rights Movement was nudged along by the integration of blacks and whites during the big band and bop era of jazz. But where jazz music may have contributed to the timetable of racial integration, black musicians were systematically treated unfairly in spite of their great contribution to American music.

As an example, black musicians have fared poorly in collecting pensions due to the fact that they were not hired to play music by employers who paid into the American Federation of Musicians pension fund, established in 1959. The fund began in the field of recording and then expanded to other work, such as Broadway and symphonic orchestral work but it never reached the jazz clubs or other live, freelance venues.

The musicians’ union does not have a great record of advocacy when it comes to jazz musicians. On the contrary, the union was guilty of segregation in most of its locals during much of the last century. Local 802 was an exception. It was not a segregated local. In fact, holding a union card had its advantages for a jazz musician, regardless of color.

That is not to say that the relationship between African-Americans and Local 802 wasn’t an uneasy one. There was much distrust of the union, having to do with the union’s strict rules, which sometimes proved to be difficult for jazz musicians. The union had a reputation for only wanting one thing from jazz musicians: dues.

Pension was never a consideration for jazz musicians playing in the clubs, simply because the union did not consider jazz clubs (or any nightclub, for that matter) a target for collective bargaining. Minimum wages and working conditions were upheld by internal union discipline. So there was no capacity for paying pension benefits in these venues since participation in the pension fund is predicated on a collective bargaining relationship between the union and the employer.

In fact, Local 802 did not pay any special attention at all to the plight of jazz musicians until John Glasel became president of Local 802 in 1983. That year the union held an open forum for jazz musicians to lay out their grievances of union practices and suggest a way forward that would benefit jazz musicians. The next year Glasel called upon a rank-and-file committee of jazz musicians to work with the union to push for collective bargaining with club owners in New York City. Glasel believed, as other Local 802 union leaders have continued to hope, “that most jazz club operators will see the merits of [the union’s] position… and will consent to entering into a contractual relationship with the union.”

History has not borne out Glasel’s belief. Almost 30 years later, the clubs continue to ignore the union and to contribute to the neglect of their musicians, especially in their later years. Local 802 has been waiting a long time for the clubs to see the light.

Black History Month has something to teach us. Frederick Douglass famously tells us, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” During the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, the organizations that tore down the walls of Jim Crow did so by applying Frederick Douglas’s philosophy. Sit-downs, marches, civil disobedience and boycotts were among the tools of mass struggle that accomplished what the system was not going to offer voluntarily.

The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has done well to get its message out and make its case for the morality of its goals. But the campaign has thus far not employed the tactics that will be needed to accomplish its ends. If we do not apply economic pressure to the jazz clubs, the campaign is not likely to succeed.

I believe the time is close at hand to begin using the tools employed by the civil rights movement. But it will require the participation of the musicians who play the clubs and especially the artists and leaders who book the gigs in those clubs. Those of us at Local 802 who have been working for pension benefits for jazz musicians for many years are ready to intensify the struggle.

A gospel song used in the Civil Rights Movement goes, “The only thing that we done wrong / was to stay in the wilderness too long.” The question is, are musicians, who have everything to gain from this struggle, willing to “plow up the ground” to reap what has been sown?

To join our campaign or learn more, see or call (212) 245-4802 and ask for the jazz department.