Pig Power

Club owner 'roasted' in front of his customers for turning a deaf ear to jazz

Volume 114, No. 7July, 2014

Todd Bryant Weeks
Justice for Jazz Artists

A “capitalist pig” takes part in a recent jazz rally at the Big Apple Barbecue and Block Party at Madison Square Park. The event receives major funding from the owner of the Jazz Standard. Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign wants the Jazz Standard and other jazz clubs to provide pension and other benefits for jazz musicians. (Photo: Shane Gasteyer)

Let the roasting begin. Local 802 and the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign recently staged two highly effective demonstrations to pressure Danny Meyer, a major jazz club owner in NYC, to negotiate over pension and other benefits for musicians.

For some time, the jazz campaign has been employing a strategy that organizers call a “corporate campaign,” which targets other assets owned by employers in order to inflict maximum pressure. Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group own the Jazz Standard, one of the most prominent jazz venues in the city. But the company also lays claim to the Shake Shack restaurant chain, which has dozens of locations in the area. Its flagship location, which opened in 2004, is in Madison Square Park.

On May 28, the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists brass band marched into the park to play for Shake Shack customers there, while supporters and union reps encouraged patrons to sign a petition and send e-mails to the Jazz Standard. Protesters and musicians, carrying signs and passing out leaflets along the way, then moved on to play in front of the Jazz Standard for patrons who were entering the club for the 7:30 p.m. show.

Even as audience members took leaflets and pledged their support, management attempted to appease demonstrators with trays of lemonade. Musicians and supporters rejected the offer, demanding talks instead. Jazz Standard staff promised to pass on the musicians’ message to upper management.

Ten days later, jazz musicians and supporters marched back into the park, this time during the annual Big Apple Barbecue and Block Party, which receives major funding from the Union Square Hospitality Group.

So far, the Jazz Standard and its corporate ownership have ignored all of the union’s phone calls, e-mails and letters (including one penned by Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Bob Cranshaw, Jason Moran and Christian McBride).

“We are marching today,” said Local 802 Recording Vice President John O’Connor, “to remind Danny Meyer and other club owners that the needs of the jazz community are real. Dozens of jazz artists retire every year in this town with nothing in the bank – and if the Union Square Hospitality Group is as community-minded as they purport to be, then they should do the decent thing and sit down with the musicians.”

At the march, a brass band playing New Orleans street beat favorites like “Little Liza Jane,” “Down by the Riverside” and “I’ve Found a New Baby” mesmerized hundreds of patrons who came out to sample barbecue and enjoy the park. High-spirited barbecue lovers clapped and danced to the music, and posed for photos with musicians and demonstrators.

Supporters passed out leaflets with such slogans as “Danny Meyer: Living High on the Hog,” “Help Jazz Musicians Bring Home the Bacon,” and “Tell Danny Jazz Musicians Deserve Pensions.”

At one point, a volunteer working on behalf of Meyer’s barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke, which was one of the featured establishments at the event, appeared with a tray of freshly grilled pork sausages. Again, musicians and supporters turned down the gesture, instead demanding dialogue with Meyer and his board of directors.

A few minutes later, police officers appeared and asked the group to leave the area, citing lack of a sound permit. But union officials reminded police that sound permits are only required for amplified groups, which the brass band was not, and that Local 802 musicians were exercising their constitutional rights to free speech by marching. Officers relented and allowed the demonstration to continue.

Besides the Jazz Standard and Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s corporation owns such fashionable and celebrated establishments as the Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, concessions at both the Whitney Museum and MOMA, and the Blue Smoke chain, which operates restaurants at CitiField, Saratoga Race Track and other locations. But the group’s main source of income is clearly from the Shake Shack, its wildly successful string of fast food restaurants, which operates in dozens of locations in the U.S. and abroad, with outposts in London, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and Istanbul.

Meyer recently received flak for opening a concession at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Some writers questioned the ethics of opening a café so close to a site that houses more than 1,000 unidentified human remains.

Meyer’s corporation does not share financial information, but its annual gross assets were recently estimated to be in the neighborhood of $474 million According to research conducted by Local 802 staffers, yearly pension contributions for all musicians who appear at the Jazz Standard would be equal to approximately 0.02 percent of the group’s annual gross income.