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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.

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“We're not asking them to do anything they can't afford,” Weeks told  In These Times. “The problem of course is that they don't want to open their books to the pension fund in the event of an audit. They are uncomfortable around issues of transparency when it comes to showing the world how they conduct their business.”

The call for fairer working conditions has special poignancy  in light of jazz's history; musicians' long struggle for artistic recognition amid  racial discrimination and exploitation is reflected in both the aesthetics of the music and the everyday lives of performers.

In a  video documentary on the campaign, saxophonist  Seán Lyons puts it simply: “I don't think to be a jazz musician you should have to swear an oath of poverty to be an artist”:

Though the economic plight of artists may be obscured by the mystique and gritty ethos of the jazz scene, the issue has been highlighted as eminent performers have aged and the music industry has narrowed commercial prospects for non-pop genres. The Jazz Foundation of America has documented various stories of artists who’ve fallen into crisis: Pioneering trumpet player Freddie Hubbard relied on the Foundation's support to cover housing and medical expenses after suffering heart failure. Hundreds of New Orleans musicians were left in dire need of emergency assistance after Hurricane Katrina.

With decent pensions and benefits, artists would presumably rely less on assistance from charities like the Jazz Foundation and Local 802’s  Emergency Relief Fund. Not to mention, it would help musicians continue to make music through the years, which would strengthen the entire jazz community.

Yet in some ways, the reverence for tradition and personal loyalties that have kept jazz alive also pose a challenge for organizers. Weeks said, "The culture is so entrenched... It's the whole artist's mentality--the notion that you need to suffer for your art. And jazz musicians don’t really expect to be able to have access to essential benefits like health insurance or a retirement fund." Jazz artists who hold creative autonomy as sacred are often wary of union campaigns, he added.

But the political dynamics of the scene may be shifting. The union recently brokered a  major collective bargaining agreement for artists participating in the Winter Jazz Fest, providing a pay hike as well as a new degree of trust between musicians and organizers. Writing in the union’s newsletter, Vice President John O’Connor said the deal “helps break the ice and shows that such bargaining can be accomplished with the right leverage and with grassroots support.”

Though struggle may inspire the greatest music, there’s no reason why, after so many generations, that struggle can't be channeled into action. And if enough people listen up, musicians might finally get their due.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @

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