Jazz Musicians Stage Fight for Benefits and Pensions

(Photo via The Indypendent)

Despite their iconic status in the New York City music scene, jazz musicians are fighting for a different kind of status, The Indypendent reported — equal benefits. Since they are freelancers, even gigs at world-famous jazz clubs such as the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard are paid per night, and offer no benefits.

Most symphony and Broadway performers who belong to the American Federation of Musicians Local 802 have employer-paid medical benefits and pensions, but jazz musicians in the union do not.

Jazz musicians have begun fighting back with a campaign to pressure the major clubs into signing collective bargaining agreements that would set a minimum pay rate for jazz arts, create a pension plan and codify a process for dealing with disputes between artists and club owners. The musicians also want royalties for club recordings — if the clubs profit from streaming recorded performances, the musicians would get a cut. So far, the campaign has been limited to union activists leafleting clubs and letting jazz fans know about their plight.

The struggle began in the early 1990s, when jazz musicians formed a caucus within the union to address their unique issues. Broadway and orchestra musicians have more regular jobs and operate as part of a larger group, whereas jazz artists have to compete against each other and form their own style. “It’s been an every-man-for-himself environment,” said Todd Bryant Weeks, a Local 802 business agent. “They have to be independent.”

The demographics and the history of jazz music play into the debate, The Indypendent reported.

In an article for the union’s website, [Todd Bryant Weeks, a Local 802 business agent,] noted that there was another component of the inequality between jazz musicians and players at bigger venues: jazz is historically performed by people of color. “From the days of traveling vaudeville and tent shows, through to the modern civil rights era and beyond, black musicians have been subjected to second-class lodgings and travel accommodations and abject racism, particularly in the Deep South,” he wrote. “Historically, jazz musicians are among the most abused of all professional performers in our history. Pit bands, especially ones made up of blacks, from whence many of the early jazz ensembles sprung, were often treated as a lower caste by more visible actors, singers and dancers.”

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