Which Side Are You On?

'Justice for Jazz Artists!' wont' succeed without the clubs

Volume CX, No. 9September, 2010

John O'Connor
Jazz Rally
Musicians make a joyful noise at a Justice for Jazz Artists campaign rally a year ago.
Photo by Enid Farber

Every year we see jazz musicians who have dedicated their lives to their art fall into poverty, relying on charitable funds such as Local 802’s Emergency Relief Fund and the Jazz Foundation. Yet a few hundred dollars a month in pension income could make a world of difference to musicians who are in need in their later years.

In 1996 I came to New York to work as Local 802’s first jazz rep. Others before me had worked in this capacity at Local 802, but this was the first time the local hired someone specifically for this purpose. I worked with the Jazz Advisory Committee to educate musicians in the jazz community about the pension benefit and how musicians might avail themselves of this important benefit. We were successful in convincing some artists who had set up corporations or LLC’s to sign collective bargaining agreements with the local, allowing for pension benefits to be paid on behalf of the artist and his or her side musicians. In addition, we were successful in organizing the first touring jazz band, the Count Basie Orchestra, negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that covered wages, working conditions and pension. We were also successful in securing a CBA with Jazz@Lincoln Center for musicians who played in that orchestra as well as orchestras such as the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. All these efforts and work became what is now known as the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign.

The idea of getting jazz clubs to contribute to the AFM pension fund has been kicked around since the mid-80’s but no one had a viable plan as to how to make this happen. Why are pension benefits from the nightclubs so important? These are the venues in which jazz musicians most regularly play. If clubs paid pension benefits on a regular basis on behalf of jazz musicians, those who worked regularly in these nightclubs could become vested in the pension fund in as few as 38 months, guaranteeing a pension for vested musicians upon retirement for the rest of their lives.

I left employment at the union at the beginning of 2000 but remained an active member of the local. Up until that time no serious effort had been made to organize the jazz clubs. Since then, the effort to organize the clubs was primarily an unsuccessful campaign of persuasion. The local was successful in working with elected officials to pass legislation in 2006 at the state level eliminating the entertainment tax from the clubs. Local 802’s administration at the time believed this would increase the local’s persuasive powers with the clubs. However, not one club, in spite of numerous attempts to communicate by phone and mail, chose to respond to the union’s request to talk formally or informally.

The one exception to this refusal to meet with the union has been Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, due to Local 802’s relationship with Lincoln Center and the Jazz@ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with which the union has a collective bargaining agreement.

We have met with Jazz@Lincoln Center a number of times but so far they have told the union flatly that, though they pay pension benefits to members of the Jazz@Lincoln Center Orchestra, they will not pay pension for musicians who work at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.

However, as Allegro went to press, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola had paid pension and health benefits on behalf of some musicians who have performed at that club. We’ll keep readers posted on how this develops.

The union has put together a Web site ( and has compiled a list of supporters for the campaign to win pension benefits for jazz musicians. In September of last year, the Jazz Advisory Committee and the local organized a rally to support the jazz campaign at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. After the rally, musicians and supporters marched through the streets of the Village to the front door of the Blue Note, with an impromptu jazz band leading the way.

We have been told that clubs are concerned about their classification as employers. The question of whether the nightclubs are the employers of musicians is a complex one. But this concern of the clubs, if it is a concern, has never been directly expressed to the union. The clubs have never consented to having a conversation with the union regarding this or any other issue. We have heard only secondhand and by way of rumors that the “employer” issue is a stumbling block.

The union’s position is that we want agreements with nightclubs that include pension contributions for all musicians engaged by the club. The question of who is the employer of musicians when they play in a club is not our immediate concern. It is not the union’s role to determine who is or who is not an employer when it comes to nightclubs contracting with self-contained acts. Local 802 has, in the past, entered into agreements with nightclubs (albeit, not jazz clubs) where this question remained unsettled, yet was able to facilitate pension contributions for musicians employed by the nightclub.

Because of the clubs’ continual refusal to speak with the union, the current administration at Local 802 believes the clubs have no interest in paying pension to musicians or dealing in any direct way with Local 802 as a representative of jazz musicians. In February of this year, the union began organizing informational leafleting of the Blue Note, to further publicize the jazz campaign and specifically the union’s desire to have nightclubs pay pension benefits. The Blue Note was selected because if its high visibility as the quintessential jazz nightclub. On all occasions thus far, the union was able to obtain the blessings of those musicians playing at the Blue Note while the leafleting occurred outside.

Local 802 is committed to doing what is necessary to correct the historical neglect of musicians in the jazz field. The fact that musicians who have provided us with one of the world’s great art forms have been deprived of a major benefit that musicians working in other fields take for granted is nothing short of a travesty. Though we must acknowledge the important role the clubs have made in advancing the art of jazz, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of those who employ these musicians to help correct the injustice. Local 802 is eager to work with any nightclub who is willing to “do the right thing,” so to speak. But if nightclubs continue to be uncooperative, the union will use the tools at its disposal to achieve the goal of bringing justice (and pension benefits) to jazz musicians. That is what we’re here for.