New York City Council Hears Push for Benefits by Jazz Veterans
In the middle of a City Council committee hearing at City Hall on Wednesday, notes began to stream, slowly and unexpectedly, from a fluegelhorn, alternating between blares and warbles, but unmistakably forming the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
It was a clarion call for jazz musicians and sympathetic council members who gathered to listen to testimony about the performers’ economic plight.
Jimmy Owens pulled out the horn in the middle of his testimony to play the spiritual, which he said he played at funerals for friends, some of them musicians who struggle to make a living.
Unlike Broadway pit musicians and symphony orchestra players, who receive pensions, health insurance and other benefits through their unions, many jazz musicians receive no such benefits. For the last few years, the union has argued that owners of clubs — namely Birdland, the Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Iridium, Jazz Standard and the Village Vanguard — reneged on a promise they made in 2006 to pay pension benefits in return for a sales-tax break passed by the Legislature. But the union and the clubs never reached a formal agreement.
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens said he supported the campaign because of jazz’s status as a “national treasure,” and his own story. His parents were union workers who have received pensions, without which “they wouldn’t be able to survive,” he said.
The goal of the hearing was to persuade council members to endorse a resolution supporting the campaign, which Mr. Van Bramer said he hoped the Council would soon do. Even so, it would be a symbolic statement without any force of law.
John O’Connor, a union official, testified that the six jazz clubs had refused to talk to the union, which Mr. Van Bramer said was unacceptable. Messages left for several club owners on Wednesday were not responded to. In the past they have maintained that the argument about pension contributions is irrelevant because in general, the clubs are nonunion venues that pay bandleaders a flat fee and that the bandleaders are responsible for paying their performers if they wish.
But musicians and the union representatives have said that the clubs could easily afford to contribute to the pensions and that they have a moral obligation to do so.
The hearing included half a dozen longtime musicians who formed a kind of all-star supporting ensemble. “I’ve been in the business for 50 or 60 years,” said Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on Miles Davis’s seminal 1959 album, “Kind of Blue.” “This is overdue.”
Mr. Owens, who is from the Bronx and attended the High School of Music and Art, said that he is in his 56th year of being a professional artist and that when he was in Duke Ellington’s band, he played at least 300 days a year, accruing no pension. He also teaches part time at the New School, which pays him a pension and provides health care, in addition to a salary.
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“When I think of the MetroCard clerk or the bus driver, they’ll work for 30 years and have a pension,” Mr. Owens said. “We’ll work for 60 years and get nothing.”
Bob Cranshaw, a bassist who has played in Sonny Rollins’s band since 1959, said he was “one of the musicians who made it,” allowing him to save for retirement. He has also been the house bass player for “Sesame Street,” “which means I’ve been in everybody’s home, whether you wanted me there or not,” he said, and was the original bassist for the “Saturday Night Live” band.
Mr. Cranshaw is on the board of the Jazz Foundation of America, which provides emergency assistance to older jazz and blues musicians. “The system worked for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone,” he said.
Councilman I. Daneek Miller of Queens, chairman of the Civil Service and Labor Committee, which held the hearing with the Cultural Affairs and Libraries Committee, said, “If we don’t address this issue now, there is no next generation of jazz musicians.”
“And there are no jazz clubs without jazz musicians,” he added.
Correction: September 17, 2014
An earlier version of this article misidentified the instrument Jimmy Owens played at a City Council hearing. It was a fluegelhorn, not a trumpet.
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