New York Jazz Greats Ask City Council to Help Them Win Fair Pay [Video]

Jimmy Owens performs for the City Council members.
Jimmy Owens performs for the City Council members.
Photo by NYC City Council Staff Photographer William Alatriste via Flickr

Many of New York's great jazz musicians are aging into poverty, strained by a lifetime of working in clubs that deny them any benefits, healthcare, or pensions. That was the testimony before a City Council joint committee yesterday from the members of Justice for Jazz Artists , a campaign created to urge the city's legendary jazz clubs, including Blue Note, Iridium, and Village Vanguard, to pay into a pension fund for musicians. One jazz artist, 70-year-old Jimmy Owens, who's been playing trumpet and flugelhorn in New York for the past 60 years, closed his testimony with a heartbreaking and beautiful rendition of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

"This is a spiritual that I play quite often at many of my friends' funerals," he told the joint committee, rising from his seat, flugelhorn in hand.

Justice for Jazz Artists was created by the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802, the union representing many of the city's musicians. They want the City Council to help them persuade New York's jazz clubs to enter into a collective bargaining agreement, one that would provide a little security for an aging population of highly skilled performers. They say that the clubs agreed in 2006 to pay pension benefits to performers in exchange for a sales tax break the clubs received, but have reneged on that promise. The New York Times says the two sides never reached a formal agreement.

In the meantime, the city's jazz veterans keep getting older, and because of the pay structure of the clubs, the ones who have spent all their working lives in music find themselves in dire straits.

"Even those musicians who play in the most prestigious and profitable jazz clubs are denied basic benefits and pensions," Justice for Jazz artists said yesterday, in a press release announcing their testimony before the Council committee. "While musicians who play on Broadway and in symphony orchestras are protected by union contracts, jazz musicians are not. Though the top jazz clubs in New York City profit greatly from the musicians that bring in their customers, they have refused to work with musicians to address pensions or other work-related issues."

Besides Owens, other jazz musicians who testified included Bob Cranshaw, Keisha St. Joan, Bertha Hope, and Gene Perla. All spoke about the difficulties of eking out a living.

"The vast majority of jazz musicians, even those who have led active careers and are considered to be in-demand players, have been forced by the nature of their occupation and by its uncertain status in our society to live a much less secure existence as they've grown older," said Hope, 77, a famed jazz pianist and teacher. "There are several musicians in this room who, although they may not want to admit it, have very little in the way of resources now that they are past retirement age. This means they're either forced to accept charity or to attempt to continue to work, something that most people in other professions would simply not be asked to do." For some of those musicians, she added, a pension agreement, if one is even reached, would simply be coming too late to benefit them.

For his part, Owens testified that he'd had to stop performing in jazz clubs full time in 1972, forced to seek other work that allowed him to pay into a pension fund. That allowed him to be "one of the lucky ones" today, he added, who aren't facing down old age and ill health with little security.

Justice for Jazz Artists hopes the City Council will soon pass Resolution 207A, sponsored by Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, chair of the Committee on Cultural Affairs. The resolution supports the jazz artists' efforts to win benefits and collective bargaining rights from the clubs, adding, "New York City would not be the cultural mecca it is without the color, texture, and flavor that jazz musicians have added to it throughout the years."

"We perform for you under many, many different situations, and you usually never know the problems we're having," Owens told the City Council, cradling his flugelhorn.

Here's Owens's full testimony. His performance of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" begins at the 8:13 mark.


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