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Bite the Band that Feeds You: Justice for Jazz Artists

01/21/2013 10:03 am ET | Updated Mar 23, 2013

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I've been watching the development of the Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) movement for a couple of years now. If you haven't heard of this organization, here's their mission statement from their website:

Jazz is an esteemed American art form, inspiring passionate devotion among generations of fans, and New York City has long been an international jazz mecca. However, unlike musicians who play on Broadway and in symphony orchestras who are protected by union contracts, the skilled jazz musicians who work in major New York City clubs have no guarantee of fair payment, receive no pension or health contributions or state statutory benefits like workers' comp, unemployment or disability insurance. And not only that--many of these great players find that their gigs have been recorded by the clubs and used without their permission or any royalty payment. Because of these injustices, many of these men and women who sustain this great American music are forced to retire with no income to fall back on in their later years. This is shameful in a country that has recognized jazz as a "National Treasure." The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign is out to change all of that, by achieving these goals:

  • Fair Pay
  • Adequate Pension Contributions
  • Protection of Recording Rights
  • A Process for Redressing Grievances

The fact is, the major NYC jazz clubs like the Blue Note, Iridium, Village Vanguard, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, The Jazz Standard, and Birdland can afford to do right by the musicians who bring patrons through their doors....Fairness! Dignity! Respect! Now's The Time!

Their tactics include picketing outside of the handful of full-time jazz clubs in New York City. Here are a few "Occupy 52nd Street" videos:

I assume they're playing dixieland music (peppered with be-bop licks) because hard-bop doesn't work as well as New Orleans funeral procession music when you're "takin' it to the streets" to march against "The Man." But "The Man" isn't "The Man" anymore, it's "The Men" and "The Woman" -- the owners of the Blue Note, for example, are Daniel and Steven Bensusan and the owner of the Village Vanguard is Lorraine Gordon, who is a recent recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) A.B. Spellman Jazz Masters Award. And what did she get that for? For maintaining New York's most enduring jazz club, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

So, what is J4JA after? Let's look at their four demands:

1. Fair Pay

This is, of course, undefined by J4JA. What should a musician make at the Blue Note for two sets on a Wednesday night? $150? $250? $1000? It depends, of course, on who the musician is -- if it's Keith Jarrett, then the price might be higher (unless Jarrett is just playing for scale because he wants to play or make a live recording), if it's a Julliard student who's backing up a local singer, then the price will be a lot lower. The reason for that is obvious-salaries are generally based on what the employee adds in value to the organization. If you can sell out the Village Vanguard, with a capacity of about 125, for $125 per ticket, then you've got some leverage in negotiating a higher salary or benefits. If you can't sell it out for a week at $25 per ticket, then you're just not generating enough revenue for the club to be able to pay you at a higher rate or to make contributions to your retirement fund or your health insurance. Regardless, none of these salaries are enough to live modestly and comfortably in New York City, nor are they enough to build a retirement fund or pay for health insurance.

2. Adequate Pension Contributions

First of all, how in the world does any musician, jazz or otherwise, think they're going to get a guaranteed pension, when most pensions have gone the way of the dinosaur, having been replaced with retirement funds? And what does "adequate" mean? J4JA is again mute. Also, who are we talking about here? Every musician who ever played the Blue Note (there are literally thousands of unknown players who have performed there over the years)? Or just the headliners and the well-known players and groups? Is the Vanguard supposed to make 8% contributions to a retirement fund for every player who plays there? Even if they did, most players only play these places a few times a year if they're lucky, so it would result in a very inadequate retirement fund anyway.

The fact is that the average jazz player only makes 37% of his/her average yearly music income ($30,519) from performing. This amounts to only $11,292.

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Even if these clubs were contributing generously to retirement funds (let's say 10%), it would only amount to $1,129 per year. This is simply not enough to provide anyone with an "adequate" pension for retirement, and there is no way that a club could pay even this meagre amount for every musician who plays there in a given year. In addition, only 44% (on average) of a jazz musician's income is from jazz (and likely a great deal of that is playing jazz as background music at restaurants or weddings, not in concert settings or dedicated jazz listening venues). Jazz musicians rely heavily on casuals (weddings, parties, etc.) and other work (theater, symphony, ballet, etc.), and teaching (24%) rather than from performances at one of these dedicated jazz clubs. It's hard to then see how these clubs are responsible for providing "adequate" pensions when the musicians are making most of their money elsewhere.

3. Protection of Recording Rights

If this refers to audience members recording live concerts on their iPhones and Androids and posting them, then the answer is fairly simple-frisk everyone coming in and confiscate their recorders and cell phones (good luck with that) and give them back after the concert. If it is referring to professional live recordings at these clubs, then the musicians have agreed in advance to the terms of the recording. If those copyrighted recordings are then used without proper compensation to the musicians and/or their record company, then it is a matter for the legal system. What is it they want to the clubs to do for them regarding protection of recording rights?

4. A Process for Redressing Grievances

There are various legal options available if one feels that a contract has been broken. (Small Claims Court, for example, is one of the most inexpensive legal options because it doesn't require professional representation. In addition, isn't there a Musician's Union in New York that protects the musicians' contracts?) As before, it's hard to determine precisely what is being demanded of the club owners here.

J4JA says "the fact is, [jazz clubs] can afford to do the right thing," which means paying higher wages and providing benefit packages. The "fact" is that the average profit margin in the bar and restaurant business is between 3-6%. With those numbers, it's hard to imagine that, somehow, jazz clubs in New York (in 2013 no less, many decades after the music's economic heyday) are flush with cash, creating an elite crew of jazz millionaires who are fleecing musicians to build their fortunes. If these owners are indeed millionaires, they earned their money over a long period of time, and in the process, they provided decades and decades of work for jazz musicians. At this point, they may even be subsidizing their jazz club to some degree. In fact, I wonder if one of the reasons Lorraine Gordon received her NEA award was precisely because she has, so far, avoided selling (or renting out) the Village Vanguard. We're talking about real estate in one of the most expensive cities in the world and the fact that these clubs are holding the line and maintaining themselves as jazz venues is, to me, remarkable and admirable given the potential income that could be derived from selling them or turning them into dance clubs.

J4JA also complains that the situation with jazz wages and benefits is "unfair" in comparison to the compensation packages of symphony and theatre musicians. This comparison rests on the fact that both groups of musicians are highly skilled, however it ignores the fact that patrons of the theatre, in particular, vastly outnumber jazz patrons, and will gladly pay $100-200 for a ticket to a popular Broadway show. Symphonies charge much more for tickets as well, but they are also subsidized by private donors and by various forms of governmental assistance. (Government support would be a much more logical target for funding than private sector jazz clubs -- in 1987, the House of Representatives declared jazz a "national treasure...to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.") The idea that two different musicians playing in two different genres, both highly skilled, should somehow make the same money is as utopian as it is preposterous because it totally ignores the demand side of the equation.

It therefore seems to me that J4JA's complaints and demands are misdirected. By targeting the handful of full-time, dedicated, listening-room jazz clubs in New York City, they are attacking the last remaining bastions of live jazz, and blaming them for the undeniable fact that playing jazz for a living does not, for the overwhelming majority of jazz musicians, provide a decent wage, much less retirement and health insurance. J4JA is right about one thing, however: there are older musicians who would like to retire, but cannot do so because they don't have the resources to support themselves. But whose fault is this?

The real problem is that the public isn't willing to pay $125 to hear a 90-minute jazz set at Birdland. By picketing the few remaining employers and publicly trying to shame them, J4JA might cause one or more of them to reconsider their commitment to jazz. They could easily sell their valuable real estate or rent it out to the highest bidder, which most likely will not be another jazz club, further contracting opportunity for employment and exposure.