Organizing the Jazz Field – An Evaluation
Volume C, No. 12December, 2000
Among the immediate priorities of John Glasel’s administration, when it took office in 1983, was to develop strategies and tactics to combat the ongoing exploitation of musicians working in the jazz field, and to bring economic dignity to this area of our business. Up until that time almost no work was done under union auspices, and benefit contributions for jazz musicians were practically nonexistent.
There were many obstacles to overcome. Almost all of the work was – and still is – short-term and sporadic, and much of it occurs outside Local 802’s jurisdiction. How, working in this context, the musicians have been able to create music of cultural, intellectual and emotional importance may be one of the great mysteries. But it happened – and Local 802 determined to make sure that the musicians were as greatly respected as the music.
At the time, jazz musicians harbored a deep distrust of the union as an institution and, in many instances, of union officials as individuals. We had probably earned this; jazz musicians – along with musicians in several other fields – saw the union as tending solely to its own interests and, in general, as having its hands in their pockets.
Local 802 took several steps to address these problems. An organizer (David Sheldon, who currently works in 802’s Recording Department as a business rep) was assigned to the jazz field. He worked to obtain agreements when possible but, more importantly, he tried to repair the union’s relationship with jazz musicians and to create an atmosphere of cooperation that could prove mutually productive. Over time Sheldon developed a working relationship with many musicians. And while it took far longer than any of us expected, I think this activity laid the groundwork for the accomplishments of the last eight to ten years.
Then, in 1984, the union launched a campaign to amend New York City’s antiquated Cabaret Law. After nearly three years of struggle, working on legislation with both musicians and city officials and bringing suit in New York State Supreme Court, the law’s discriminatory provisions were overturned. One immediate result was to open up employment opportunities for wind, brass and percussion players in the city’s small bistros.
While this increased employment, it did not bring the jobs automatically under union contract. The organizing work needed to continue.
By the early to mid-1990s we had begun to realize that new strategies were required. A way had to be found to approach the wide variety of work that, taken together, forms the basis of a jazz musician’s yearly income – recording work, club performances, teaching, tours, concerts and festivals. We needed to look at all of these areas.
We developed a policy of approaching leaders of high-profile, mostly small ensembles to convince them to incorporate as a means of providing health and pension benefits for themselves and their side musicians. These were non-adversarial agreements containing economic terms and conditions that fell within the leaders’ ability to pay.
Largely due to the work of members of the Local 802 Jazz Advisory Committee, we now have contracts with more than a dozen individual, incorporated jazz artists and/or groups of artists. These include Blossom Dearie, John Hicks/Elsie Wood, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones, Dennis Mackrel, Jimmy Owens, John Pizzarelli, Larry Ridley, Marvin Stamm, Billy Taylor, David Taylor, Reggie Workman and Sixteen As One Music (the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).
These agreements provide for important benefit contributions on behalf of these artists and the musicians they employ. They have allowed the artists access to the extremely valuable AFM & Employers Pension Fund, in many cases for the first time. For many it has also made health insurance coverage possible. Local 802 also has agreements covering the Count Basie Orchestra, “Highlights in Jazz” concerts, the Donald Byrd Dance Company and the regular band performing at the Supper Club.
In 1991 the newly formed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (now Jazz at Lincoln Center) was brought under union contract. Subsequently the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band reached agreement for its performances, and the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra entered into a contract with Local 661-708 in Washington, D.C., so that all three important repertory jazz ensembles are now under union agreement.
Then, in 1997, Local 802 initiated its most ambitious organizing effort in this field: the adjunct jazz faculty at the New School. This successful campaign and the contract that followed were significant victories in this field.
Much, however, remains to be done. Many of these agreements are imperfect: the Lincoln Center Jazz contract does not cover music prep, the Carnegie Hall agreement is not inclusive of many (perhaps most) out-of-town performances, and neither of the agreements provides job security.
2001 will be a critically important year for our continuing efforts in the jazz field. Both the Lincoln Center Jazz contract and the New School agreement are up for renegotiation. It is our belief that the entire jazz community has a vested interest in improving these agreements, and that both are important to ensuring further progress for jazz artists in our city and around the country. The Jazz at Lincoln Center program has grown and prospered. Certainly the artists who have made it such a success should share this prosperity.
The organizing success at the New School was a direct result of the unity among that faculty, and we hope that this high degree of solidarity will lead to solid advances. Improvements in the New School contract will help jazz educators everywhere.
A NEW INITIATIVE
Live musical performance art, including the music presented in this city’s jazz clubs, is one of the most important tourist attractions in New York City; it brings millions of dollars in income to city businesses and to the city treasury through sales tax revenues. Nearly all live musical performance art presented in New York receives some public support – except for the jazz clubs.
There are now seven major Manhattan clubs which present jazz on a regular basis: Birdland, the Blue Note, the Iridium, the Jazz Standard, the Knitting Factory, Sweet Basil and the Village Vanguard. The recently opened B.B. King’s on 42nd Street presents a mixture of blues and r&b in a club setting, with seating for 499. Several dozen smaller clubs in other parts of the city regularly feature jazz performance, and hundreds of restaurants and bars present at least some live music. Taken together, these smaller, club-type live performance venues provide an important part of the income of many jazz artists and contribute significantly to the city’s overall entertainment economy.
Based on these facts, we have begun discussions with members of the City Council and the council’s finance department about extending the type of tax relief that was granted to Broadway theatres in 1963 to smaller live-music performance venues. The funds made available by such tax relief would be devoted exclusively to providing health and pension contributions for the performing artists. Our friends in the council believe that passage of such a proposal is possible. We will continue to work with them to push this effort forward.
Throughout this entire process several members of the jazz community have taken the time and made the effort to assure the success that we have experienced. They all need to be recognized, but I especially appreciate the continued hard work of Jimmy Owens and Bob Cranshaw.
Jazz organizing has been, and will continue to be, an 802 priority. Our goal is not merely to assure that this work is brought under contract, but to truly represent the interests of the musicians in this vital segment of our industry.