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Jazz Musicians Rally Together for Better Pay, Better Treatment at Work

Many jazz artists hustle from gig to gig, often at the mercy of club owners who have little or no obligation to provide basic benefits like medical or unemployment insurance.

Photo Credit: AFP


The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

NEW YORK—Jazz is both America's classical art form and the classic music of struggle. You can hear that duality, and see it, every night on the dimly lit bandstands of New York City. But for the musicians, the toughest part often comes after the gig, when they realize the cash they took home isn’t enough to make rent. Or maybe 30 years down the line, at the age when other workers retire, but they have to keep playing shows to keep eating.

But now the unrest over inequity on Wall Street is starting to resonate in the heady air of Manhattan jazz clubs. The  Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, run by the New York musicians’ union  Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, is rallying for decent wages and pensions for artists, along with a greater voice in how their music is heard and sold.

Many jazz artists, both bandleaders and side musicians, hustle from gig to gig, often at the mercy of club owners who have little or no obligation to provide basic benefits like medical or unemployment insurance. With New York's exorbitant cost of living, a single  bout of illness or rent hike could tip musicians and their families into poverty.

Hoping to make it easier for the city’s hardest-working musicians to make a real living, Justice for Jazz Artists (a coalition of musicians and activists with Local 802) has  worked to pressure some of the city's major clubs, like the Village Vanguard and the Iridium, to provide musicians with access to pensions later in life. 

Their other long-term demands include a basic minimum pay scale, which could be adjusted according to the size of a club’s business; firmer protections for musicians’ right to earn income for live recordings; and an arbitration process to resolve labor disputes.

The pension funding structure is theoretically already on the books. In 2006 New York State  passed a law offering a sales tax break on ticket sales, on the assumption that the money saved could then be funneled toward health and pension benefits. Employers would contribute to the American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund. Though the measure initially won support from musicians, the union and even club owners,  the policy remains mostly just on paper, as the clubs and the union never came to a formal agreement on how to implement the pension plan. Meanwhile, despite reports of reduced tax revenues for the state, clubs argue they can’t squeeze their bottom line any further.

But Local 802 is still trying to  mobilize audiences and musicians to push for a pension plan that would benefit both union and non-union artists. Following the model of a pension system for Broadway musicians, the union's scheme would enable jazz artists to participate in the pension fund after a five-year vesting process. Gigs would yield regular pension fund payments from clubs--which the union estimates could be as little as $20 a night, per performer--and musicians could supplement with employer contributions from other jobs, such as teaching. Eventually, the union wants to create a network of clubs around the country that would be covered by the system.

One apparent obstacle to a pension deal, according to Todd Weeks, a campaign coordinator at Local 802, is that much of the money in the jazz scene is made off-the-books or in cash.

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