Jazz is cool. Retirement is not. In a subculture built on improvisation and fierce individualism, how do aging artists settle down? Defying the genre’s reputation for freewheeling lifestyles and entertainment-industry exploitation, the elders of New York’s vaunted jazz scene are partnering with the city’s labor groups to shine a spotlight on their struggle for economic security.

Justice for Jazz Artists, a campaign led by local musicians and American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 802, aims to create a pioneering pension system for jazz musicians—similar to the plan many Broadway and session musicians already use. But unlike some of the city’s more stably employed artists, in orchestra pits or recording studios, many jazz artists are non-union and spend decades living from gig to gig, playing for just a cut at the door or a wad of cash. Reflecting a deep history of jazz musicians struggling to live off their talent and getting preyed upon by commercial forces, their pay rates often barely cover rent, much less a retirement nest egg.

The proposed fund would allow a musician to be vested within a few years of regular contributions, and upon retirement, start collecting monthly payments, which could range from a few hundred to about $2,400, depending on their current salary.

The benefit would be financed through the savings that clubs have accrued from a sales tax repeal on their admission fees. The program would mirror AFM’s existing multi-employer pension plan, which collects contributions from concert halls and other established venues to support participating musicians, ranging from orchestra players to radio jingle singers.

Now hoping to organize in the relatively small jazz clubs, musicians and activists are now publicly campaigning for a comprehensive collective bargaining arrangement that would include “fair pay, adequate pension contributions, protection of recording rights,” and a grievance process. Musicians and activists testified at a City Hall committee hearing last week, and while hearing their pleas, lawmakers weighed a non-binding resolution supporting their demand for a pension and collective bargaining rights.

Local jazz legend Jimmy Owens, with more than sixty years of playing trumpet and flugelhorn under his belt, told Council members that many local artists “don’t, or will not have large Social Security contributions. They will not have a pension, unless they started one themselves.… We find that jazz artists, as they get into their older age, get called less for work. At the same time, they work less, maybe…than before, because of health.” But with the financial security of stable pension payments, he said, “This money not only helps musicians, it helps to keep the music alive.”

The retirement plan has been in an impasse since 2005, when labor activists negotiated a deal with owners of clubs like Birdland and Iridiuim to lobby for a state sales tax break, on the condition (what the union calls a “handshake agreement”) that, in tandem with saving on taxes, the clubs would pay into the pension fund. The club owners’ trade association, Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, at the time endorsed the proposal to then-Governor George Pataki, in a letter stating, “A number of major clubs have agreed to direct the savings from the admission tax exemption to performers’ health and pension benefit funds.” But by the time the proposal worked its way through Albany’s sausage-maker, the most important aspect was missing—a direct mechanism for actually collecting the contributions and investing clubs’ revenues in pensions. The clubs never established a collective agreement on making direct payments into a pension plan. And now, the union argues, the clubs are benefitting from the tax savings without following through on their earlier commitment to artists. Club managers have countered that they had simply served as a “pass-through” for the sales tax, so no money is being hoarded, and the plan would be financially unworkable anyway.

Club owners did not comment publicly to The Nation, but in past media reports, and speaking on background last week, managers expressed skepticism about the union’s organizing efforts and the financial and logistical burdens of a formal collective bargaining agreement.

The campaign says it has not been able to revive formal talks with the clubs, so it is driving forward with raucous demonstrations, including musical protests outside top clubs and public appeals to both fellow musicians and policymakers.

John O’Connor, Local 802 AFM Recording vice president stated, “Though we must acknowledge the important role the clubs have made in advancing the art of jazz, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of those who employ these musicians to help correct the injustice. Local 802 is eager to work with any nightclub willing to do the right thing.”

The pension dilemma reflects a broader problem of precarity besetting the city’s creative workers. Far from the stereotype of the elite “creative class,” today’s “starving artists” get all the hardship and little of the romance of urban legend, wrestling with unstable, low-paying jobs and a soaring cost of living. A typical club musician in New York might earn just $75 to $125 per gig. This chronic impoverishment in turn saps the talent of local art, music and theater scenes.

Building a career in jazz has always hinged on a combination of pluck and luck, but now new institutions have emerged to fill a need for sustained care for older artists. Owens praised the work of the Jazz Foundation, for example, which has aided musicians facing economic hardship with charity funds for housing, food and other emergency needs. But too many artists are struggling to survive, he said, “because the places they work don’t pay into the pension fund…. You need to help us now, in some way.”

Owens counts himself as “one of the lucky ones” because he has managed to build his own retirement fund as a self-employed artist, which allows him to help support pensions for his accompanying musicians as well, but at a price. “In 1972,” he said, “I pretty much gave up playing in the clubs” in order to do more jobs that allowed him to shore up his finances.

For musicians who spend their lives enduring such hard compromises for a labor of love, a pension would be a modest payment on the debt the city’s jazz culture owes to its most faithful talents. As Owens performed a mournful solo rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” before his City Hall audience, the tune expressed the bittersweet undertone of the artist’s plight: however many accolades they win, the struggle for creative fulfillment too often costs them their dignity; the codas of their careers, at least, deserve to go out on a high note.

Editor’s note: the post was updated to show that the resolution has not yet passed the City Council.