Turning Up the Heat
Recording Vice President's Report
Volume 115, No. 1January, 2015
With momentum from City Council and with new supporters, our jazz campaign is doubling down in 2015
The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has gained many supporters over the years. Some of the most respected names in jazz have endorsed the campaign, which calls for pension benefits and other fair treatment in the major jazz nightclubs through collective bargaining. Some of these respected musicians were with us when we gave testimony at City Council in September in support of the resolution calling for jazz clubs to negotiate with Local 802. During the testimony, we heard from, among others, Jimmy Owens, Bertha Hope, Bob Cranshaw, John Mosca, Gene Perla, Keisha St. Joan and Jimmy Cobb. When the bill passed, Joe Lovano and Larry Ridley showed up, while a band featuring jazz campaign endorser Scott Robinson played from the balcony of the City Council chambers.
Most recently Terrance Blanchard and Kenny Barron have joined our ranks, as has the prominent intellectual and activist Cornel West. The endorsements keep coming and our support keeps growing, but still the nightclubs remain silent and continue to profit from the music that jazz musicians create, even though some of these musicians will fall on hard times in their later years, partly because the jazz clubs refuse to take part in a retirement system that can help alleviate poverty for older musicians.
A week after City Council passed its resolution supporting the campaign, the Jazz Standard, whose owners told Congressman Jerrold Nadler in 2013 that they would not sit down with the union over pension or any other issue, announced that they would be contributing proceeds from online ticket sales to the Jazz Foundation of America, a charitable organization that helps jazz and blues musicians in need for emergency situations. While such contributions are of great help to the Jazz Foundation, a most deserved charity, the timing of the announcement seemed clearly an attempt to diffuse criticism of the Jazz Standard for its refusal to pay pension benefits on behalf of its musicians. By making the announcement immediately after City Council passed its resolution, the Jazz Standard seems to be saying that it will only contribute to musicians after they fall into poverty, but sees no reason to help prevent poverty among jazz musicians.
The contempt that the Jazz Standard has for the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign is inexcusable. This campaign was organized by jazz musicians, and their contributions to the campaign, as it has continued to develop, have been integral to its strategy. When the Jazz Standard refuses to talk to the union, it refuses to talk to the musicians. You cannot separate the two.
Owners of jazz nightclubs cannot say they respect the musicians if they refuse to listen to what the musicians have been telling them for years. Jazz musicians want prospering jazz clubs to contribute to their pension fund.
It’s time to increase the pressure on the jazz clubs. In the coming months you will see increased activity of Local 802 activists, organizers and allies raising the volume on the Justice for Jazz Artists Campaign. We are doubling down on the exposure and pressure we are going to give to the jazz clubs and their owners for their failure to act as good citizens. And we have to hold accountable those who make the decisions for these businesses. For instance, Danny Meyer, a respected businessman in this city, is the owner of the company that controls the Jazz Standard. He is ultimately the person responsible for the Jazz Standard ignoring jazz musicians’ just demands for pension.
Likewise, how much can Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon say she is a friend to jazz musicians if the Vanguard reportedly pocketed the portion of the admissions price it netted from the passing of the New York nightclub tax waiver instead of paying it into the musicians’ pension fund?
The current campaign against the major jazz clubs in New York has been going on for almost four years. And it’s been more than seven years since a bill was passed in Albany waiving the admissions sales tax for shows in the jazz clubs – money that was supposed to be re-directed to the musicians’ pension fund.
But this is no reason to become discouraged. This sort of campaign, which changes the landscape of unionization, takes time. This isn’t the first time I’ve worked on a campaign within the musicians’ union that has taken a little patience and work. In 1984, I sat down with a group of folk musicians to talk about unionizing the touring folk scene. It took us nine years – until 1993 – to create our own “local” chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, known as Local 1000, and another six years to bring viability and stability to the local. Now, Local 1000, one of the few growing locals in the AFM, is involved in a Fair Trade Music campaign, fighting for fairness on the folk circuit. Local 1000 has signed up almost 30 venues across the country that have agreed to provide minimum scale wages and pension benefits. I remember thinking at the beginning of the campaign to organize folk musicians, “Can we really pull this off?” When we started talking to musicians, some literally laughed at us. (The humor of organizing folk musicians was not completely lost on me.)
But all efforts like this start out somewhere. The old Knights of Labor song goes, “Step by step, the longest march can be won.” Maybe as a folksinger I was listening too closely to lyrics like these not to make the endeavor.
The Justice for Jazz Artist campaign to unionize the nightclub network will succeed with the right strategy, with musician involvement and with tenacity. It will have its greatest impact when it effectively becomes a national campaign. That will happen when other AFM locals achieve what we are trying to achieve. Already, there are efforts to organize jazz in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. There is no doubt that the first nightclub to come to an agreement with the union will be a great impetus toward signing up others. This could very well be the year.