Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the city’s music scene than the jazz artist. And while the genre isn’t as popular as it once was, these talents are still in demand at many of the world-famous jazz clubs in Manhattan, like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. In fact, many of these clubs still turn tremendous profits. Yet, jazz musicians — freelancers who are paid per gig with no benefits — are second-class citizens in American Federation of Musicians Local 802, through which the bulk of the union’s symphony and Broadway members enjoy employer-paid medical benefits and pensions.
Jazz musicians have begun fighting back with a campaign to pressure the major clubs into signing collective bargaining agreements that would set a minimum payrate 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.”
This type of work carries a great deal of economic insecurity. The Broadway and orchestra players have fairly consistent work, while a jazz artist can encounter dry spells. Weeks noted that clubs will hire band leaders, who in turn hire jazz artists who arrive to the show without knowing who they will be playing with or how much the other artists are getting paid.
The jazz artists’ caucus made some headway in securing contracts for performers at the Village Vanguard and for jazz instructors at The New School in the 1990s. A legislative plan to secure pension benefits was devised, in which Local 802 lobbied Albany to rescind a tax on club admissions, moving that money instead into defined pension plans. Then-governor George Pataki signed legislation that rescinded the tax but did not compel the club owners to use that money for pensions. “It became kind of a toothless law,” Weeks said. “This was sort of a dead end for us.”
In an article for the union’s website, Weeks 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.”
Now, the pressure is on the clubs themselves, many of which have plenty of money to throw around. The union claims, for example, that Blue Note has still turned a profit even during the economic downturn. Jazz artists note that without workers like themselves, who spend their lives honing their craft and practicing for hours each day, there would be no profits for the club owners or the service workers they employ.
Furthermore, the union argues that the clubs could easily meet these economic demands. For instance, Weeks said, it believes that a pension contribution could be as little as the cost of two drinks at a club, and that a place like Blue Note could pay the cost of pension benefits for three performers with one customer’s cover charge.
Local 802 estimates that it has around 500 members who play jazz, are older than 40, and don’t have a defined retirement plan. About 20 percent of the union’s 8,500 members are jazz musicians, although some of them have other gigs on Broadway. Weeks estimates that about 400 musicians are active in the campaign, but added that “many jazz artists are afraid of reprisals and will not come out publicly on this issue until we have reached critical mass.”
So far, no club has joined the union at the bargaining table. Various club owners told The New York Times that pension contributions would be too costly and impractical, and although they think these benefits are good ideas in theory, they aren’t tenable in the current economy.
“I think it’s a great idea philosophically, but the devil’s in the details,” Iridium owner Ron Sturm told the Times. “How do you do it?”
So far, the union hasn’t called for boycotts, but it is bringing the message to club patrons, who could put pressure on the owners. Local 802 organizes regular leafleting sessions outside clubs with the hope that jazz fans will realize that they have a vested interest in supporting performers.
“We encourage people to go in and support these clubs but also to send the message that they support [the campaign],” Weeks said. “They can also lobby their local City Council members or state representatives to get behind this issue.”
If progress is made with just one club, the union believes, jazz musicians can achieve some of their contract goals with little acrimony.
“If one club comes forward, we are looking for ways to celebrate that club,” Weeks said. “We can get the word out that if you are coming to New York, you should book at this club. And it will make the other clubs look bad.”
Goodbye, First Amendment: ‘Trespass Bill’ will make protest illegal
Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country.
Under current law, White House trespassers are prosecuted under a local ordinance, a Washington, DC legislation that can bring misdemeanor charges for anyone trying to get close to the president without authorization. Under H.R. 347, a federal law will formally be applied to such instances, but will also allow the government to bring charges to protesters, demonstrators and activists at political events and other outings across America.
The new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene, but the law stretches to include not just the president’s palatial Pennsylvania Avenue home. Under the law, any building or grounds where the president is visiting — even temporarily — is covered, as is any building or grounds “restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance."
It’s not just the president who would be spared from protesters, either. Covered under the bill is any person protected by the Secret Service. Although such protection isn’t extended to just everybody, making it a federal offense to even accidently disrupt an event attended by a person with such status essentially crushes whatever currently remains of the right to assemble and peacefully protest.
Hours after the act passed, presidential candidate Rick Santorum was granted Secret Service protection. For the American protester, this indeed means that glitter-bombing the former Pennsylvania senator is officially a very big no-no, but it doesn’t stop with just him. Santorum’s coverage under the Secret Service began on Tuesday, but fellow GOP hopeful Mitt Romney has already been receiving such security. A campaign aide who asked not to be identified confirmed last week to CBS News that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has sought Secret Service protection as well. Even former contender Herman Cain received the armed protection treatment when he was still in the running for the Republican Party nod.
In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense, but those occurrences covered as special event of national significance don’t just stop there, either. And neither does the list of covered persons that receive protection. Outside of the current presidential race, the Secret Service is responsible for guarding an array of politicians, even those from outside America. George W Bush is granted protection until ten years after his administration ended, or 2019, and every living president before him is eligible for life-time, federally funded coverage. Visiting heads of state are extended an offer too, and the events sanctioned as those of national significance — a decision that is left up to the US Department of Homeland Security — extends to more than the obvious. While presidential inaugurations and meeting of foreign dignitaries are awarded the title, nearly three dozen events in all have been considered a National Special Security Event (NSSE) since the term was created under President Clinton. Among past events on the DHS-sanctioned NSSE list are Super Bowl XXXVI, the funerals of Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, most State of the Union addresses and the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
With Secret Service protection awarded to visiting dignitaries, this also means, for instance, that the federal government could consider a demonstration against any foreign president on American soil as a violation of federal law, as long as it could be considered disruptive to whatever function is occurring.
When thousands of protesters are expected to descend on Chicago this spring for the 2012 G8 and NATO summits, they will also be approaching the grounds of a National Special Security Event. That means disruptive activity, to whichever court has to consider it, will be a federal offense under the act.
And don’t forget if you intend on fighting such charges, you might not be able to rely on evidence of your own. In the state of Illinois, videotaping the police, under current law, brings criminals charges. Don’t fret. It’s not like the country will really try to enforce it — right?
On the bright side, does this mean that the law could apply to law enforcement officers reprimanded for using excessive force on protesters at political events? Probably. Of course, some fear that the act is being created just to keep those demonstrations from ever occuring, and given the vague language on par with the loose definition of a “terrorist” under the NDAA, if passed this act is expected to do a lot more harm to the First Amendment than good.
United States Representative Justin Amash (MI-03) was one of only three lawmakers to vote against the act when it appeared in the House late Monday. Explaining his take on the act through his official Facebook account on Tuesday, Rep. Amash writes, “The bill expands current law to make it a crime to enter or remain in an area where an official is visiting even if the person does not know it's illegal to be in that area and has no reason to suspect it's illegal.”
“Some government officials may need extraordinary protection to ensure their safety. But criminalizing legitimate First Amendment activity — even if that activity is annoying to those government officials — violates our rights,” adds the representative.
Now that the act has overwhelmingly made it through the House, the next set of hands to sift through its pages could very well be President Barack Obama; the US Senate had already passed the bill back on February 6. Less than two months ago, the president approved the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, essentially suspending habeas corpus from American citizens. Could the next order out of the Executive Branch be revoking some of the Bill of Rights? Only if you consider the part about being able to assemble a staple of the First Amendment, really. Don’t worry, though. Obama was, after all, a constitutional law professor.
When he signed the NDAA on December 31, he accompanied his signature with a signing statement that let Americans know that, just because he authorized the indefinite detention of Americans didn’t mean he thought it was right.
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Betty Carter, one of the world’s most outstanding jazz vocalists, sings:
Jazz ain’t nothing but soul
It’s the song of my people
It’s about ‘taters and grits.
She gives a clear description of what the sound of jazz means to blacks. The details of the song describes in vivid tones, just what just jazz music really is.
In “I Love Jazz” Louis Armstrong tells us how jazz is composed:
It’s a little bit of this and that
Sometimes we sing,
Sometimes we play,
Sometimes we scat,
But most of all it’s how you feel about the groove.
And when it’s groovin’,
How the groove makes you move
Jazz music sprouted rock and roll
It was the very first music that we call soul,
Jazz is hot, it’s cool, it’s good, it’s bad. . .
Some jazz artists were forced to leave their birthplaces or homes because they took a stand for their civil rights in cities, often in the South, where racism was taking a longer time to die. Some racists believed that if they could put their hatred in the form of laws and creeds, they could justify it or hide behind it, claiming that racism was not personal, it was just the law.
Many jazz artists faced repercussions for their political stances. Louis Armstrong was banned from New Orleans and Hugh Masekela was exiled from his homeland. Nina Simone chose to leave America because of its hatred and bias and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, while Nat Cole contemplated a move to Cuba for similar reasons.
Eartha Kitt was ostracized for being biracial, Harry Belafonte was called a communist because of his stances on civil rights. In choosing to take political stands, black Americans’ careers were threatened by the entertainment industry. If they continued to publicly affirm or fight for their rights, they were even threatened with physical harm.
Some cunning entrepreneurs would literally offer these artists menial amounts of money to steal or plagiarize their music or their rights of ownership because most blacks didn’t know the law. Affluent blacks who did would advise the artists how they could go about maintaining the rights to own and record their music. In many cases their white counterparts would advise them as well. These white artists, civil rights supporters and politicians who openly stood by these black artists also suffered consequences.
Here is a more detailed look at the how the politics of jazz, directed at jazz artists and others, became parts of the biographies of some of the jazz greats. (The following excerpts are taken from various texts.)
When four black children were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963, Nina wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” a bitter and furious accusation of the situation of her people in the U.S.A.
When she wrote “Four Women” in 1966, a lament of four black women whose circumstances and outlook are related to subtle gradations in skin color, the song was banned on Philadelphia and New York radio stations because “it was insulting to black people…”
Her repertoire includes more Civil Rights songs: “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” capturing the tragedy of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, “Brown Baby, Images,” based on a Waring Cuney poem, and “Go Limp, Old Jim Crow.” One song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s play with the same title, was once the black national anthem in the U.S.
Billie Holiday was given a song-poem, “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching protest written by Abel Merropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan. She ran into trouble with racists, especially in the Jim Crow southern states, drawing much criticism and hatred as the song exposed the racism of the South.
But the song also gave Holiday a real hit record and new and international fame as a purveyor of socially significant ballads. The track continued to be identified with Holiday who, on April 20, 1939, made a record of this controversial title for the Commodore label, her own label having refused to record it.
Opinion divided sharply on the merits of “Strange Fruit” as a jazz vehicle, and the effect it had upon her instinctive taste and artistry. Critics feared it could lead to a self-consciousness that would destroy the strangely innocent qualities of earlier days.
On the touring circuit it was well known that Ella’s manager, Norman Granz, felt very strongly about civil rights and required equal treatment for his musicians, regardless of their color. Granz refused to accept any type of discrimination at hotels, restaurants or concert halls, even when they traveled to the Deep South.
Once, while in Dallas touring for the Philharmonic, a police squad irritated by Norman’s principles barged backstage to hassle the performers. They came into Ella’s dressing room, where band members Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jacquet were shooting dice, and arrested everyone. “They took us down,” Ella later recalled, “and then when we got there, they had the nerve to ask for an autograph.”
Norman wasn’t the only one willing to stand up for Ella. She received support from numerous celebrity fans, including a zealous Marilyn Monroe. “I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Ella later said. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the fifties. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him––and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status––that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again.”
If she had never made a movie, her music career would have been enough to ensure her legendary status in the entertainment industry. Films were icing on the cake. After she made an appearance on Broadway, Hollywood came calling. At twenty-one years of age Lena made her first film, The Duke Is Tops (1938). It would be four more years before she appeared in another, Panama Hattie (1942), playing a singer in a nightclub.
By now Lena had signed with MGM but, unfortunately for her, the pictures were shot so that her scenes could be cut out when they were shown in the South. Most theaters there refused to show films that portrayed blacks in anything other than subservient roles to whites, and most movie studios did not want to take a chance on losing that particular source of revenue. Lena did not want to appear in those kinds of stereotyped roles (and who could blame her?).
Lena’s musical career flourished, but her movie career stagnated. Minor roles in films did little to advance her film career, due mainly to the ingrained racist attitudes of the time (even at the height of Lena’s musical career, she was often denied rooms at the very hotels in which she performed, because they would not let blacks stay there). Had it not been for the prevailing racial attitudes during the time when Lena was just starting in show business, it’s fair to say that her career would have been much bigger, and come much sooner.
Nat King Cole:
Nat King Cole was the first black man to have his own television show. On December 1, 1957, Cole hosted the sixty-fourth and final episode of The Nat King Cole Show, a fifteen-minute weekly variety show aired on NBC-TV. It ends for a lack of national advertisers willing to sponsor a show hosted by a black man.
Some whites even inferred he was “too dark for television,” while others feared they could not deal with a black man “wooing” their wives with his good looks and melodic voice, not to mention his awesome style of dress. His articulate speech was no less a threat to those who felt it was indeed unheard of that a black man could speak so well.
Smitten by these ugly tones of racism and the politics of jazz, Cole contemplated moving to Cuba, where he was overwhelmingly popular and very well respected. But the move never happened, as he became sick with cancer that would take his life.
When Louis Armstrong returned to New Orleans for the first time since he had left in 1922 to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, he was greeted as a hero. But racism marred his return when a white radio announcer refused to mention Armstrong on the air, and a free concert that Louis was going to give to the city’s African-American population was cancelled at the last minute.
The words of jazz great, vocalist Betty Carter, say it all: “Jazz ain’t nothing but soul, it’s the song of my people.” And although the politics of jazz still rings true today, jazz is still going strong, it’s the history of my people.
Florida Citizens Groups Take Voting Rights Battle to Court
The League of Women Voters of Florida, Rock the Vote and the Florida Public Interest Research Group claim that new GOP-sponsored voting requirements will hurt students, seniors, the disabled and minorities — groups that often vote Democratic in the state.
Could jazz provide the Occupy Wall Street soundtrack?
The civil rights movement had a jazz beat. Now a new generation of players wants to meld politics and protest
In the late ’50s and ’60s, during the peak of the civil rights movement,
marches and meetings had a jazz soundtrack. Masterworks like Max
Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite,” Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and
Sonny Rollins’ “Freedom Suite” were equal parts incendiary and
innovative — brilliant music that reflected their times with precision
and passion. As that era gave way to the heyday of Black Nationalism,
political themes continued in the vibrant jazz of musicians like Archie
Shepp, Sunny Murray and Julius Hemphill, among others.
Yet by the ’80s, fight-the-power odes died down in jazz, especially as
rap and hip-hop emerged to carry the flag. Jazz veered toward easy
listening instead. “I think jazz went through a period in the 1980s and
1990s where it was trying very hard to be ‘America’s Classical Music,’”
says composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue. “The intentions behind
this were laudable. The movement clearly succeeded in increasing respect
for jazz in elite circles — but it also defanged the music by stripping
away the social and political context, or by trying to frame it in
broadly inoffensive terms.”
Argue is one of the most prominent of a growing number of jazz musicians
whose work features overtly political themes. They are reflected in
major shows upcoming on both coasts. In November, “Brooklyn Babylon,” an
evening-length work featuring music by Secret Society, Argue’s 18-piece
band and visuals from graphic novelist Danijel Zezelj has its world
premiere as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave series.
This weekend, renowned trumpeter Leo Smith presents his “Ten Freedom
Summers,” an epic work that traces the civil rights movement from the
Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to the passage of
the Civil Rights Act, at the REDCAT Center in the Walt Disney Complex in
Los Angeles. The music will be recorded for Cunieform Records for
release in 2012.
Some of the top jazz recordings of the last 18 months have been by
artists focused on politics. The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra released
“Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King” (Porto
Franco) in January. Saxophonist Howard Wiley‘s 2010 album “Twelve Gates
to the City” (HNIC) was inspired by his interviews with inmates at the
Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is built on what was once a
plantation. Other top political jazz albums include Mark Lomax‘s “The
State of Black America” (Inarhyme) and “For Which It Stands”
(Sunnyside), by the quartet Cloning Americana.
These recordings span a wide variety of jazz styles — from lush big-band
arrangements to intimate trios — but they share musical common ground
in their themes of dismay, anger and reflection. Note that all of the
recordings have been released on independent and sometimes artist-run
imprints. During the last decade, the major jazz labels, especially Blue
Note and Verve — once a vital support system for bold artists — have
mostly turned to other styles of music. Norah Jones helped keep Blue
Note afloat, while Rhett Miller, Chris Isaak, Blues Traveler and Teddy
Thompson have made albums for Verve.
In many ways, Argue is emblematic of the post-millennial jazz musician.
He built a following for his group via his blog, where he posts
political and musical commentary (in a delightful bit of jazz
obsessiveness, he refers to orchestral jazz as “bigband,” yes, one word)
as well as MP3s of their performances. He used the website to fund his
Grammy-nominated debut recording, “Infernal Machines” (New Amsterdam).
He writes politically charged pieces that are also musically innovative;
his harmonies cross sections. Rather than hard-charging battalions of
trombones and saxophones, his music is more delicate. For instance, a
piece might highlight harmonies created by flute, bass trombone and
Brooklyn Babylon’s themes range from the gentrification of Brooklyn to
the story of an artist who gets so lost in his work that he loses touch
with what’s happening in his community. Argue says that he and Zezelj
felt like the character in their work as they watched Occupy Wall
Street, a movement they passionately support, grow while they are on the
sidelines working on this piece. “It’s hugely inspiring and absolutely
relevant to the kinds of issues we are dealing with in Brooklyn
Argue agrees that jazz has had no choice but to take a turn toward the
political. “After a decade of senseless wars and massive inequality,
capped off by global economic collapse,” he said, “it’s become
increasingly hard for anyone, including jazz musicians, to feel like
they are somehow above the fray.”
The George Kahn “West Coast Jazz” Quartet will perform at The Jazz Bakery on Monday evening, October 6th. One night only, there will be two sets at 8 PM and at 9:30 PM.
George Kahn's Cover Up! doesn't waste any time. The swing kicks in hard and fast --–‘ Cover Up! is a sterling musical statement from an unselfish and swinging pianist. Don't let it go unnoticed.