Remembering John Glasel

Volume 112, No. 1January, 2012

Jack Gale

John Glasel in 1984

John Glasel (1930-2011) was a first-rate musician and a heroic fighter for musicians rights and welfare. I am pleased to have an opportunity to write this because I believe that no one knows better than I the depth of his character, intelligence, courage and selflessness.

For all the years since I joined Local 802 in 1961 (and, apparently, for decades before) this union’s members working in NYC were deeply dissatisfied with the competence and integrity of its elected leadership.

The apparent contradiction in this concept flowed from the extent to which members who weren’t working in the NYC music business tended to reflexively vote for incumbents.

This phenomenon was intensified with the introduction, in the early 1960’s, of a mail ballot election process which caused a large proportion of the union’s 30,000 inactive or out-of-town members to receive and return ballots by mail.

These members had no direct contact with the administration nor awareness of its failure to represent musicians and generally voted for the incumbents whose pictures they regularly saw in Allegro.

As a result, reform movements – most notably the Clean Slate in the 1960’s – repeatedly lost election campaigns in spite of virtually total support from the 5,000 members working in NYC.

In the summer of 1980, after a 10-year hiatus in organized electoral opposition, a new reform party was born at Local 802.

This organization included many new, younger members and an even broader cross-section of musicians working in studios, hotels and club dates, and at Lincoln Center and on Broadway.

John Glasel and Murray Rothstein, who had been associated with the Clean Slate, were once again in key leadership roles.

With only a month or two to form a slate and prepare an election campaign, the party made an impressive showing with Met Opera tubist Herb Wekselblatt as its presidential candidate. However, the party did not win any of the 22 elected positions.

John knew that we were working to benefit all members, not just those currently working in New York City. He resolved to make that clear in the party’s name, which was an acronym based on a brief mission statement. The Members Party stood for: “Make Every Musician Benefit from Efficient, Responsible Service.”

In early 1981, he began developing a plan for the 1982 election, which reflected his remarkable energy, determination, intelligence, writing skills and political insight.

He immediately created a newsletter which combined critiques of administration policies, music business news items, essays on union philosophy and arguments for bylaw changes.

Like his mentor, Murray Rothstein, John understood union politics, labor law and musicians’ needs and attitudes.

These formidable insights began to permeate the party and shaped its outreach to the members. John was actually turning the party into a movement.

He drafted important bylaws that brought democracy to the union. At membership meetings, John’s eloquence and insights led to passage of the resolutions he proposed.

The biggest problem all reform parties had faced up to that time was the need for any member elected to the Executive or Trial Board to cease working as a musician. The bylaws required board positions to be full-time, five-day-a-week jobs as office workers even though actual board meetings were only held one or two times a week for a few hours.

John saw two critical problems in this system.

The structural problem was that board members’ independence was compromised by the top officers’ power over their livelihoods.

The political problem was that dynamic, knowledgeable, and respected musicians who would be ideal board members were unwilling to give up their playing careers to serve in office.

He wrote and achieved the adoption of a superbly crafted and thought-out bylaw that created part-time boards. Today, this system makes board service possible for virtually all members.

John counseled against any effort to repeal the mail ballot for the time being, but rather to concentrate on assembling the strongest possible slate of candidates now that we could run any member in good standing.

At this time, pressure began to mount for John himself to be the Members Party’s presidential candidate. Eventually, he said yes.

Up to that time, John had been a remarkably busy and versatile trumpet player. In the classical area, he was a founding member of the New York Brass Quintet; as a studio musician he worked in television, jingles and records. He was an accomplished jazz musician in all genres; he was a first-rate club date musician and worked extensively on Broadway. He was also a fine composer and arranger.

His eventual agreement to run for president was a reflection of what I see as his selfless devotion to musicians, the union and the music business. He found the courage to give up his musical career to help others.

John and his ticket ran with the endorsement of many prominent musicians including Yo Yo Ma and Glen Dicterow.

He won big, along with all 21 of his running mates. The victory celebration in December 1982 featured many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians: John’s longtime friend Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan and his band, Phil Woods and a Local 802 big band consisting almost entirely of newly-elected union officers.

As president, he developed and instituted an incredible series of reforms and improvements for the local:

  • He achieved the unionization of virtually all Off Broadway musicians.

  • He instituted Legit 802, our payroll service, which still serves today to facilitate the filing of union contracts.

  • He established Local 802’s first organizing department employing professionally trained organizers.

  • He put his stamp on Allegro by guiding its transformation from a drab newsletter into its current status as an articulate, relevant and interesting publication, which has won many awards for excellence.

  • He fostered a comprehensive rank-and-file committee system, which greatly promoted union democracy by empowering every bargaining unit to elect player-representatives to act as liaisons with the union in contract negotiation and administration. Because of his unprecedented openness to member input and his own vast experience as a working musician, he negotiated some of the most successful contracts in the local’s history.

  • He encouraged members to come forward when they were aware of contract or labor law violations, and he made protecting musicians from employer reprisals a top priority. He made it clear that if the union could not resolve a member’s grievance without exposing him or her to possible employer reprisal, the union would not pursue the issue.

  • In 1989, he authored and gained passage of a bylaw restoring in-person voting in Local 802 elections.

  • He instituted the Local 802 referral service, which gives members access to jobs when people call the union asking to hire musicians.

  • He built a public relations and political action department to promote the union’s image and push for music-friendly legislation. The union began to research and endorse political candidates who supported the arts and unions.

Finally, two significant achievements under John’s leadership deserve special mention.

First, the union created a viable strike fund for musicians. This was new and it greatly added to our strength.

Secondly, we purchased our building at 322 West 48th Street. (As some members may remember, we’ve now paid off the mortgage and own the building outright.)

These two milestones were actually accomplished in a single stroke. In 1983, although I was not in office, I wrote a combined strike fund/building fund bylaw, something that would not have been possible before John’s presidency. Both goals were achieved only with his encouragement, guidance and support.

John was a highly enlightened leader but he was also a volatile and occasionally confrontational figure. Over the years, he sometimes became embroiled in internal conflicts with members and fellow officers.

It was during such a conflict over the composition of the party’s 1992 electoral slate that John suddenly pulled out of the Members Party and opposed it in the election with his own hastily-assembled ticket of candidates. His entire slate’s loss of that election by a wide margin left him somewhat embittered.

After his departure from Local 802 politics in 1993, he devoted his attention to advocacy for health reform and participation in other progressive issues on behalf of which he was a frequent writer of eloquent letters published in the New York Times and other publications. He occasionally continued to act as a gadfly in Local 802 political and policy affairs.

However anyone may feel about John Glasel, personally or politically, there is no question in my mind that this local – and, in many ways, the AFM – are immeasurably more democratic and effective than they were before his involvement.

Every professional musician owes and will continue to owe a great deal to John Glasel.