March 15, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
Photo Credit: By Kate Glicksberg/Local 802
New York, NY – There’s an old joke about a jazz musician worth $2 million. How’d he get that much money? “He started with $4 million and kept gigging.”
Musician Paquito D'Rivera told that joke at Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians’ first “Jazz Mentors” night, held at the union’s theater-district hall Mar. 10. The event offered members advice on developing and sustaining a career from three more experienced musicians: up-and-coming singer Jazzmeia Horn; bassist Bob Cranshaw, who’s worked with legends like singer Ella Fitzgerald, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and guitarist Grant Green; and clarinetist/saxophonist D'Rivera, formerly with the Cuban band Irakere, who since emigrating to the U.S. in 1980 has become one of the pre-eminent figures in Latin jazz (although like many musicians, he dislikes “categories”).
“We’ve been needing to do something like this for a very long time,” Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi told the crowd.
Their advice was both artistic and commercial. D’Rivera encapsulated the contradiction when he spoke of turning down a gig in New Jersey because it paid only $50. But you’ll only have to play for 10 minutes, the organizer told him. “What?” D’Rivera responded. “You’re not going to pay me, and you’re not going to let me play either?”
Cranshaw, though his first love is jazz, advised younger musicians to “be open to everything.” When he played in the 1970s rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, he said, “the young guys taught me how to play rock, and I taught them how to play jazz.”
In an era where the Internet has amplified demands that musicians should give away their work for “exposure,” Local 802 jazz business representative Todd Weeks asked, how do you say no to exploitative offers? “I say no all the time,” Horn answered. If you turn down ill-paying gigs, she hopes, it will raise the bar for what club owners and promoters expect to have to pay. But “you have to be careful not to get too tough,” D’Rivera cautioned, or else they won’t call you back.
In order to have leverage to ask for more money, Cranshaw said, you have “to be known… to establish a name.” He was able to do that by working as a sideman with masters like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but believes players coming up today don’t have the same chances to do that.
“Music is an art, but for me it’s a profession. That’s why we have a union,” D’Rivera said. “I am a terrible businessman, but I have to pay my rent.”
Horn is more entrepreneurial. When she wanted to move from her native Dallas to New York to study music, her parents disapproved and wouldn’t pay, so she organized a benefit concert and raised the money.
One of the struggles for Local 802, however, has been how to get jazz musicians benefits like pensions, a minimum wage, and unemployment and workers’ compensation. Collective bargaining is much easier in steady, large situations like symphony and Broadway pit orchestras than it is in the jazz world, where a four-night stand at one of the bigger clubs is a long-term, high-paying gig.
The union would like to establish basic standards at the city’s top jazz clubs, such as the Blue Note, Iridium, and the Village Vanguard, Weeks told the group, but is handicapped because only 12 to 15% of the city’s jazz musicians are members, and many fear they’ll lose gigs if they speak out. One possible strategy, he said, is a “fair-trade campaign” similar to those that have succeeded in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. The union would publicize its standards, and then honor clubs that accept them.
“I want to fight on behalf of the young guys,” Cranshaw said. “Use me up. I don’t have a lot of time left. Get it.”