Club Musicians, Owners at Odds Over Pensions
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
A new law in New York could help jazz musicians secure their futures. It will allow jazz clubs to redirect some of the money they normally send to the state for a sales tax into a pension fund for the musicians.
NPR's Felix Contreras reports.
(Soundbite of crowd)
FELIX CONTRERAS: It's a busy Monday evening at The Blue Note in New York's Greenwich Village. There's already a line forming outside for the 9:30 show. Inside, the room is packed to its 200-seat capacity, with customers enjoying dinner and drinks. This is how a jazz club pays its bills. The club has to pay the band, the help and two state taxes. One is an 8.25 percent sales tax on the cover charge.
But come next April, the sales tax will be gone. Instead of the state of New York pocketing the estimated $1.7 million a year, jazz clubs can now send the money to a pension fund for musicians.
The legislation was drafted by Local 802 of the Musicians Union and is designed to offer a bit of financial stability to musicians who usually can't count on retirement plans or even adequate health care.
(Soundbite of band warming up)
CONTRERAS: Further uptown, a big band is rehearsing in the union's Midtown rehearsal space. Mike Fey is running them through some of his compositions for an upcoming gig. None of the 12 musicians assembled have the kind of reputation yet that can command a big payday in a major jazz club. So like countless jazz musicians before them, these young players work in small clubs to build their reputations and to explore the art of jazz. And they do it for small amounts of cash, with little or no deductions withheld. Mike Fey.
Mr. MIKE FEY (Musician): They generally play the clubs because that's where, you know, the deepest music gets played a lot of the time, but certainly anything that allows them to play in the clubs more and allows them financially to do that is a great benefit, of course.
CONTRERAS: But not all musicians agree. One musician in the rehearsal spoke up about the city's divided music industry. He didn't want his name used because he didn't want to alienate the union officials.
Unidentified Man: I think more of us would rather it went directly to the musicians who are playing that day, rather than to the fund, because the fund is disproportionately helping people who already make plenty of money working on Broadway and do all that sort of thing.
CONTRERAS: Broadway is a union shop, and theaters have redirected the sales tax to the union pension fund since the early 1960s. Musicians who work in local symphonies and recording studios also enjoy union benefits like health care, negotiated wages and pensions. But many jazz musicians are not members of the union and work in a virtual underground cash economy.
(Soundbite of music)
CONTRERAS: On a shady Brooklyn street of neat row houses, trumpeter Wilmer Wise is climbing onto the Jazzmobile, a mobile jazz stage that offers free concerts to the people of New York. Since its inception in 1964, the Jazzmobile organization has offered union scale to musicians whether they are in the union or not. Wise is a retired 30 year veteran of Broadway pit bands with a pension, which he says allows him to dedicate his retirement years to playing his first love, jazz. He says the new law will be a godsend to many jazz musicians.
Mr. WILMER WISE (Retired Trumpet Player): I've heard horror stories. I have friends who are jazz players - name jazz players - who have $200 a month pension. I'm sorry, you can't even ride the subway for $200 a month. I'm highly in favor of there being a pension for the jazz musicians playing in nightclubs.
CONTRERAS: Officials from Local 802, along with some prominent jazz musicians who are members, hope the new law will be a first step toward organizing the jazz industry and jazz musicians in New York. Bill Dennison is the union vice president that supervises club work.
Mr. BILL DENNISON (Musicians Union): The income received from working in some of the smaller clubs is a relatively small part of their annual income, and it's the other work that they do through teaching or festivals or concert performances in larger venues that we will work very hard at on getting agreements that allow benefits to be paid that can be meaningful.
CONTRERAS: Redirecting the money to the union's pension fund is voluntary. Dennison said he will be meeting with local club owners to explain and encourage them to participate. In the meantime, he says it will be the union musicians themselves who can be the best advocates for change by letting the club owners and their fellow musicians know a pension can change their lives.
Felix Contreras, NPR News.
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