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.