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.
Jazz musicians’ struggle for respect and fairness has deep roots in history
Historically, jazz musicians are among the most abused of all professional performers in our history.
From the days of traveling vaudeville and tent shows through to the civil rights movement and beyond, jazz musicians – especially black musicians – have been subjected to second-class citizenship, particularly in the Deep South.
Some of the greatest figures of the last century were among the most exploited, or were effectively discarded when they grew old and could not earn a living.
In 1938, an elderly Joe “King” Oliver, perhaps the most influential American jazz musician before Louis Armstrong, a renowned performer with an international reputation, was discovered in Atlanta, destitute and working as a street vendor.
With the advent of the recording industry in the 1910’s, musicians were almost never fully informed of their rights regarding publishing and recording royalties.
Managers, promoters, agents and producers regularly stole from artists by fraudulently adding their own names to recording contracts as composers, lyricists and arrangers.
Artists’ royalties, when they were paid, were almost uniformly grossly inaccurate.
During the 1930’s and 40’s, the deftly talented pianist-composer-arranger Mary Lou Williams routinely fought for publishing royalties for her original compositions, but rarely won.
Without expensive legal representation, jazz musicians were easy targets for unethical, predatory show business “gadflies.” These predators well understood the business of defrauding the artists, whose main concern lay in creating and performing, not accounting.
In the rural South, racial discrimination was the law, and black performers had grown accustomed to being treated shoddily.
The pianist Hank Jones was hired by trumpeter Hot Lips Page in 1944 for a big band. He remembered a tour in the South: “Some venues had pianos that were badly out of tune, and some had pianos that had missing keys. If the piano was two or three steps low, you had to transpose up to the key the band was playing in. It was almost impossible but it had to be done, otherwise you couldn’t play at all. And we played one venue where they only had three walls. One side of the place was completely open.”
Racism was endemic, and even the most successful musicians were victimized. Stories of abuse are a routine part of the culture.
Even Miles Davis was once savagely beaten by a New York City policeman in front of Birdland, where he was headlining, because he refused to “move on.”
Jazz musicians have often worked under adverse conditions as a matter of course, even as they were crafting a folk idiom into a fine art.
The vocalist Keisha St. Joan, a Local 802 member and an intrepid supporter of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, was once fired from Windows on the World. She believes it was because she complained about the way her fellow performers, one of whom was the trumpeter Doc Cheatham, were being treated on the bandstand. Cheatham was one of the music’s progenitors.
“They handed me my walking papers,” said St. Joan when interviewed by Allegro in 2010. “And you know who cared? It wasn’t me. Doc Cheatham deserved better than he got from those people. I needed the gig, but not that bad.”
In 2009, the bassist and educator Dr. Larry Ridley recalled, “I’ve been in the union since 1960. As African-American musicians, we always had to fight to get the respect we deserved, even within our own union. Black musicians back then looked at the union as being insensitive to our needs – even as locals in every town, big and small, still demanded union dues on every gig we played.”
That stigma has yet to entirely disappear.
The mistreatment of jazz musicians by the union was also present in passive ways. The pension fund is a case in point.
The pension fund has been up and running since 1959, but to many jazz musicians, especially those of color, it remains a mystery.
Bassist Bob Cranshaw remembers playing on Broadway in the 1960’s: “I was there to play my instrument, you know, that’s what I wanted to do was really play. And then during the breaks I’d look over and see the whole brass section in a huddle in the corner. We in the rhythm section were talking about music. They were talking about their pensions. A light went on, and I made a few calls, found out there was money there. But had I not been privy to those conversations, I never would have had a clue.”
Trumpeter Jimmy Owens remembers it this way. “It was a case of benign neglect,” Owens said. “That’s a nice way of putting it. The union and the musicians didn’t really look to secure the kinds of protections that should have been made available to all musicians. And, what was worse, the pension fund was kept a closely guarded secret.”
Although the racial climate is very different today, jazz musicians of all stripes are still uninformed as to their rights in the workplace. And there are innumerable stories of well known artists who cannot afford to keep their homes or are devastated when they become ill with no safety net. These issues are as real today as ever before.
Today, musicians are still subject to shady deals where promoters book bands into clubs, only to make promises to owners that they have no intention of keeping.
Headliners will be guaranteed and not produced at show time and then the owner will refuse to pay the promoter the promised fee. Gigs are cancelled without notice. Side musicians are usually the ones to suffer in these situations, as they are invariably underpaid.
Because it is bandleaders who often negotiate the contracts, it has become a standard industry practice for side musicians not to know what their fellow bandmates are receiving in wages. This generally works to the club owners’ benefit.
And despite the fact that a club may often dictate proscribed house policies as to when the band should start and stop playing, what the musicians may or may not wear, and even, in some cases, what type of music the band is to play, the club owners themselves have never been liable for those obligations that most other employers assume at the outset – that they will pay each worker on a W-2, and help to ensure the musicians’ overall security by paying into unemployment, disability and workers’ comp.
Although the employer-employee relationship is murky (musicians are “employees” in the eyes of New York State, but who the “employer” is has never been legally set down), what is clear is that these musicians have few if any real legal rights in the workplace, apart from those they insist upon through their own personal service agreements.
There are scores of “retired” jazz performers here in New York who can barely make ends meet, living hand to mouth with little or no social security, and no other discernable safety net.
This represents an ongoing component of a larger problem.
These musicians, without any substantive benefits structure, rely on handouts, or direct assistance from essential entities like the Local 802 Musicians’ Assistance Program or the Jazz Foundation of America. Because there has historically been a lack of advocacy, a culture of charity has sprung up. But there are far more cases than there are charitable dollars to ameliorate suffering.
Certainly, the time is ripe for progressive, collective action on this front. Musicians need to screw up their courage and band together to get pension and other essential rights in the New York City jazz clubs, and then across the country. There is no time like the present.