Stormy Monday: Controversy at the Jazz Masters Awards

The Village Vanguard’s owner, Lorraine Gordon, was awarded the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award Monday night.

The Village Vanguard’s owner,
Lorraine Gordon, was awarded the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award Monday night.

Rough weather is brewing in the jazz world. This Monday, jazz puns at the ready, the Transom took the A train to the Time Warner Center, where the National Endowment for the Arts was presenting, among other awards, its annual A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy. The award is given to an individual who has contributed to the appreciation and advancement of the jazz art form. This year’s recipient was Lorraine Gordon, owner of legendary Greenwich Village club the Village Vanguard, but not everyone in the jazz community took the decision in stride.

As the black-tie-wearing patrons made their way through the glass doors of the Time Warner Center and up toward Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where the awards ceremony was taking place, members of the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign stood outside in the drizzle, passing out flyers.

Justice for Jazz Artists is an initiative by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians that is committed to redressing various injustices in the current system upheld by New York’s top jazz clubs—the Blue Note, the Iridium, the Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, the Jazz Standard and Birdland—which have consistently neglected to provide pension contributions, fair pay scales and protection of recording rights to musicians.

“For many years, Local 802 has been trying to get the major clubs in New York City to come to the collective bargaining table and talk about paying benefits to their musicians that other musicians have in other lines of work,” said John O’Connor, recording vice president of Local 802. “We feel the campaign is to redress an injustice that goes all the way back to the beginning of jazz, when jazz musicians didn’t get pension benefits through the union,” he continued.

While the organization deals with a host of issues, the fight for pension contributions has been the focal point of its struggle. In 2007, the musicians’ union joined with the jazz clubs to pass a bill waiving sales taxes on admission to the clubs, under the implicit understanding that this new revenue stream would allow clubs to make modest contributions to a pension fund for musicians. Yet, since the bill was passed, not one of the major clubs has done so. For clubs such as the Blue Note, which grosses an estimated $7 million to $9 million annually, the $56,000 a year that would be needed for pension contributions would be a drop in the bucket, or so they argue.

“We have dozens of musicians that retire year after year with nothing in the bank,” said Local 802 jazz representative Todd Weeks, adding that many retired jazz musicians turn to them in order to get help paying for their funerals. Right now, Mr. Weeks is in the process of assisting the widow of a famous jazz musician who is facing eviction and is unable to pay her maintenance bills. “We’re not being unreasonable, and we’re addressing something that everyone has recognized is a need, even the club owners,” explained Mr. Weeks. “They just don’t think it’s their responsibility.”

The group sees a particular irony in this year’s award. While last year’s recipient, trumpeter Jimmy Owens, was an outspoken participant in the fight for musicians’ pensions, Ms. Gordon has refused to show solidarity with Justice for Jazz Artists and has repeatedly rejected attempts to bring her to the negotiating table.

“It’s a bit of a contradiction, we feel. You’re awarding someone like Jimmy Owens, who’s a premier jazz player who’s been on the forefront of our Justice for Jazz campaign from the beginning,” says Bennett Baruch, director of organizing and field services for Local 802. “And the following year, the NEA awards someone who’s not supportive of this campaign, who’s not even been responsive to any of our requests.”

Ms. Gordon had not returned the Transom’s calls at press time. “Mrs. Gordon was honored for her significant contributions to the appreciation, knowledge and advancement of jazz, and we believe all can agree that there is much to be celebrated in this life and career,” the NEA said in a statement.

As a Time Warner security guard, backed by a couple of boys in blue, attempted to eject the leafleters from the sidewalk, Messrs. Weeks and Baruch headed upstairs to catch the tail end of the festivities. In an overflow room next to Dizzy’s, the awards ceremony was being shown on flat-screen TVs. While they don’t usually go inside the clubs they leaflet, they felt it was a good opportunity to speak to like-minded jazz aficionados and promote the cause.

“Be discreet—take off your button” said Mr. Weeks to Mr. Bennett as they stepped in the elevator.

The mood upstairs was jovial, the wine was flowing, and most people Messrs. Weeks and Bennett engaged with seemed responsive to the noble aims of their struggle. Yet there are many outside the union who don’t view the issue as black-and-white.

“Of course we all think jazz musicians should be paid more in pensions,” explained Howard Mandel, president of the Jazz Journalists Association, “but I’ve got to say that the club business is one of the hardest in this country. The club owners are squeezed in the middle too … the jazz world is underfinanced at this point, and that affects every sector.

“It’s a very worthy idea, but it seems complicated by real-world standards,” Mr. Mandel added.

Stormy Monday: Controversy at the Jazz Masters Awards