New York, NY – I’d heard about the Justice for Jazz Artists group and their work, but it wasn’t until last night that I met up with them. They have been assembling for some months for different actions surrounding the unfair treatment of musicians in New York City nightclubs. Last night they were assembled under the vision of 99 Picket Lines, an Occupy working group that seeks to foster consciousness and cross-sector solidarity for the city’s labor groups, from sanitation to desk workers, through assembling picket lines across the city.
On this evening the labor in question was jazz music, and we had in the march a full brass band, including a jazz piccolo player, an assortment of friends and wishers-well, fellow musicians from the musicians local 802 (there’s GOT to be a way for a pianist to play and march, right?), and a few Occupy folks, including myself and my friend Tony from the music working group.
We met across the street from Dizzy’s, one of the clubs in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex at the super upscale Time Warner mall at Columbus Circle. From what friends have told me, playing for any Jazz at Lincoln Center gig is pretty much a musicians’ top gig, and to start a protest at that spot seemed a particularly bold move.
The group played a number of tunes as onlookers snapped photos and the banner holders got themselves together. We crossed the street passing out flyers and starting the show. Immediately dozens of people stopped and listened. Little kids passing by instinctively danced, and even some adults couldn’t help it (jes grew). A half dozen security guards came out and stood by with that trademark hands folded in front of their bodies gesture of relaxed anticipation, nodding their heads after a particularly good solo, and the police stood away from the music talking with the organizers, their three vans parked with lights just around the corner.
We walked south past the main entrance of the mall and some musicians passed us. When people asked why we were marching, we said, “There is this agreement that jazz clubs made to pay into the musicians’ pensions, for which they get a tax write off. They got the write off, but don’t pay.” It’s so so simple it’s not even about music: it’s just about keeping a promise. People get that right away, and it’s hard to disagree. Then there’s clubs recording musicians and selling the recordings without paying them, that’s to tell the many musicians who walk by and understand in a sound-byte’s time how wrong that is. Almost everyone took flyers, and some joined the march for a block or two, dancing and talking with the musicians and organizers.
We walked across the south of the circle and to Broadway, playing its Lullaby. The sidewalk is big there and a few restaurants with outdoor seating were treated to a lovely spectacle and joyful sound. Most whipped out cell phone cameras and smiled, a few waiters moved railings in a little tighter: perhaps out of fear of us, or acknowledgement that the street is not just for dining, or because we looked like we needed a stately ground.
As we headed into the Times Square district, the mood changed to tourists and those who serve them. The tourists always think such things are a delight, what makes New York so special, and it was the punctuations of “What do we want? “Justice,” “When do we want it?” “Now!” that shifted our passing by from spectacle to statement, and sometimes they would seem confused or better yet, turn a wry smile in acknowledgement.
I asked one of the folks walking with the march if there would be a mic check. “We’re not there yet,” the person said. Indeed, in the moments when the musicians were not playing, they stood silently, waiting for the next tune or talking among themselves. As an occupier, I was a little weirded out by that, but then it reminded me of myself when I first started going to Zuccotti.
I was so freaked out by the human mic concept, by the idea that someone just shouts out loud if they need something, by the bursts of group noise calling attention to an action. And it also reminded me of my early meetings, being afraid to speak and worse, disagree, based on my own beliefs and principles. Actually, it was, and still is, hard for me to even state these beliefs among strangers. As I talked to one of the local 802, who told me of the unique difficulties of organizing a group of so many different types of workers spread all around the globe all the time under incredibly different conditions, I understood how hard the musicians’ struggle to find a voice as labor could be. My respect for this group coming out into the streets at night, protesting in front of the mightiest institutions of jazz, grew as I stood there.
We arrived at the Iridium, sandwiched between the singing-waiter diner and Mama Mia! on Broadway. A couple sitting outside and eating smiled and welcomed us. We assembled on Bloomberg’s polka dot pedestrian zone and played tunes and talked with passers by, who built up into crowds then ebbed between tunes, many asking questions or snapping photos of the musicians with their Justice For Jazz Musicians signs.
Someone came from one of the venue doors and asked us to quiet down. But it wasn’t Iridium, it was Mamma Mia! The horns could be heard in the theater, and there were union members in the pits. The brass turned their bells away and continued playing, thought we were running out of flyers and thus would need to quit after one more tune. A woman on the street was having fit, “I just can’t remember the name of that song, what is it” I asked a horn player. “Cabaret,” he said. “Yes!” she said, her whole body relaxing. “Oh,” I said. “I really should know that but I’m more of a punk musician and we have . . . different standards.”
“No, you just need to live longer,” the musician said, and went back to playing.
When the last one ended the group again did the call and response, then spontaneously led into a new chant they’d invented along the way. To a rolling snare the shouted, “No justice, no jazz, no justice, no jazz,” with blurts of horns and piccolo runs snaking through.
When we ended, a server brought us all cold bottles of water, and only moments later Mama Mia! let out. They’d already packed up, and some of the musicians gone, but those left were bummed and really wanted to engage this now thick throng of potential sympathizers. “But we have no more flyers,” someone said, then commented how they’d made so many more than they thought they’d need.
“So next time…” another said: a lot more flyers, a night timed to hit those post-theater crowds, and with a new chant in their protest march songbook. They’ll be more organized.