Basie's Band Gets Union Gig

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Terence Conley remembers a night two years ago when he had to stand at an ATM to take money out of his savings account to pay the other members of his jazz trio after a bar owner shortchanged them. “A local musician has to fight to get his money at the end of the night,” Conley says. “You still have to pay the guys.”

As a pianist in the Count Basie Orchestra, filling the musical shoes of His Highness himself for the last two years, Conley no longer has to worry about getting what's owed him. And now he doesn't have to worry about how he'll pay the bills once the music stops, either. Last fall, the 19-piece orchestra became the first unionized big band. “We didn't look to be unionized,” he admits. “We were looking for a pension.”

In fact, the unionization was a simple, harmonious improvisation worthy of the Basie name. After management fired a 20-year veteran, the members began to talk about the sting of not having pension benefits. By joining Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, they can join the union's $1.2 billion pension pool.

And senior bandmembers like Bill Hughes, who has played trombone in the group for 38 years, can now stretch their legs in business class during the orchestra's four annual overseas flights. Other agreement terms limit the amount of time the band, which is on the road 34 to 40 weeks every year, can travel on performance days.

It's benefits like these that usually make managers view unionization as costly agony. But for Aaron A. Woodward III, CEO and president of Count Basie Enterprises, who has struggled to preserve the band after Basie's death, it was a godsend. “It's difficult to retain good musicians,” Woodward says. “In the fourteen years Count Basie has not been with us, it's been difficult to keep them together.”

Local 802 isn't going to take five after adding the Basie band to their rolls. The union has started a “Justice for Jazz Artists” campaign. “There are a few bands out there that I think are ripe for unionization,” notes union president William Moriarty. Jazz musicians historically aren't as well protected as Broadway or symphonic musicians–and many former members of touring bands have ended up living in severe poverty in their later years. The Jazz Foundation, a charity that assists musicians, has thrown several benefits to raise enough money to lay some fine jazz musicians in their final resting place.