1 March 2017

The Column: Eddie Myer – United We Stand

    Sad tidings reach us that the Jazz At The Palmiera sessions in Hove are no more, having been abruptly terminated without notice. While it’s been heartening to see the abundance of new casual gigs springing up around town over the last couple of years, both players and aficionados alike will be wearily familiar with the precarious nature of these events, dependent as they are upon the landlord’s goodwill – a commodity that is all too often contingent upon the thirst of the patrons and their willingness to spend good money quenching it. Despite the best efforts of a hedonistic minority, jazz fans are no longer the big drinkers that they used to be in the rollicking days of prohibition, speakeasies and unrestrained gangsterism, and this has an impact on the economic viability of the back-room session. We can be thankful for the happy confluences of sympathetic landlords, popular venues and committed musicians that have resulted in several long-running casual gigs in towns across the South Coast, especially Brighton. 

    Of course jazz musicians are often free-wheeling types, well used to the peripatetic nature of the biz, and resilient enough to shrug their shoulders and move on in the face of adversity. The music industry is notorious for short-termism, casual employment, sketchy arrangements regarding pay and conditions, and other evils of an unregulated marketplace where the supply of labour exceeds the demand, and anyone who survives for any length of time learns to roll with the punches and read the small print of the contract, in the event that one is actually offered. There’s an informal network operating to let players know who the sharp operators are amongst agents, landlords and promoters, and it can be easy to forget that there’s a trade union for musicians as well, dedicated to promoting their interests within the industry. 

    The origin of the Musicians’ Union is tied in with the beginnings of the jazz age, but its relationship to jazz players themselves has never been straightforward. The story begins in the latter years of the 19th century, when rapid urbanisation and the birth of popular commercial entertainment – theatres and music halls – created a new class of professional musicians. Conditions seem to have been frankly horrific – confined to cramped, dirty pits, the players were usually at the mercy of managing directors – a class whose entrepreneurial thirst was seldom inhibited by human feelings – who saw them as a necessary but expensive evil, and tried to drive down costs at every opportunity, or would cancel at a whim or whenever poor ticket sales occurred. Contracts, paid rehearsals, and backstage riders were unknown, to say nothing of Arts Council funding. Such musician’s organisations as existed, descended from the old system of guilds and town waits, were more concerned with protectionist strategies to exclude non-members undercutting their rates and restricting the ability of foreigners to work in the UK than negotiating better conditions. Then as now, the contingent nature of the work, the unclear distinction between part-time and full-time, professional and amateur, and the over-supply of labour made collective bargaining difficult. A petition of 1469 complains of “rude countryfolk and workers at various crafts who have pretended to be minstrels”  – another of 1653 tried to insist that a minimum of four musicians  be employed for “banquets, feasts, weddings, revels or other assemblies”. Job insecurity in the London theatres of the 1760s led to musicians  taking on more work than they could actually perform, then creating a system of deputies or ‘deps’ to cover the less well remunerated engagements, both a product of and a contribution to chaotic working conditions.  A letter to the Orchestral Association Gazette of 1875 complains of managers who have “not a note of music in their heads, yet they dictate what is and is not good in music”. These give us fascinating glimpses of how little some aspects of the musician’s life has changed. 

    Come the 20th century, serious attempts were underway to regulate and protect the burgeoning growth in musical employment. It’s estimated that while the UK’s population doubled between 1870 and 1930, the number of musicians increased sevenfold. All kinds of specialisms emerged – brass players were heavily in demand at ice rinks, apparently – but the real growth areas were down to two epoch-defining innovations – the cinema, and the arrival of popular dance music in the form of American jazz. Cinemas were the largest employers of musicians by the 1920s, but hot on their heels came the new wave of massive dance halls, such as the famous Hammersmith Palais and the Empire chain run by Sir Oswald Stoll, of which the Shepherd’s Bush and the Hackney branches are among the best-known survivors. The effect on musical employment was sudden and drastic; attendances at the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concerts  dropped to less than 100 in 1924, while 4,000 were at dances ‘the same night’. This created tensions which the newly-formed Musicians’ Union tried to resolve; a letter in the Musicians’ Journal of 1925 describes the incoming jazz musicians as “an entirely new breed – their demeanour crass, their comportment uncouth, their training inadequate or non-existent” . The writer was particularly incensed at the way the parvenus were suddenly making more money than ‘proper’ musicians were, so that “respectable baton musical directors are assessed at a fraction of the worth of jazz solo-saxophonists, or even jazz drummers”. So did jazz-trained players come to describe rock musicians in the 1960s, and rock musicians in turn decried DJs in much the same terms in the 1980s and 1990s.

    The union struggled with the jazz players because they were making good money, didn’t belong to the establishment, and saw no reason to join. A further blow came with the introduction of talkies into the cinema. Silent movies, of course, were not actually silent at all – they all relied on live music, from solo piano to full orchestras. Minutes of a 1929 Union meeting complain of “the American capitalists trying to install talking pictures on threat of the supply of pictures being cut off” but predicted confidently that their power would be thwarted as sound in cinema was an un-natural, passing fad which the public would soon reject. We can perceive a foretaste of the Union’s struggles with the impact of changing technology on musical employment, from backing tracks to file-sharing to streaming. 

     Though both jazz and the MU developed alongside each other, the essential nature of the jazz-player’s life has kept them at arm’s length from each other as often as not. The challenges facing musicians as workers in the capitalist system have changed in their particulars over the years, yet the nature of the problems – how to assert their right to fair terms and conditions, and how to safeguard their employment from the vagaries of the wider economy – has remained constant. How could the Union address them? Answers on a postcard, please, and don’t forget to keep coming to the gigs – that’s the surest way to aid their survival. 


All source material from:

‘Players Work Time – A History Of The British Musician’s Union’ by John Williamson and Martin Cloonan.

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