I’ve been spending time with a lot of 1950s and 1960s jazz music lately. While listening, I often read about the albums and how they were made, and about the musicians who made them.
I’m struck by how the work life of these great artists was nothing if not precarious, to borrow a contemporary term.
Sidemen were hired, fired, and rehired by bandleaders, sometimes with little or no notice. Bandleaders often took credit for their sidemen’s compositions. Payment was not uncommonly withheld by bandleaders, managers, record labels, and venues and dolled out with irregularity to maintain dependence and power. Police semirandomly and racistly confiscated artists’ cabaret cards, which were effectively a license to work.
The passage of time, beautiful black and white photographs of sharp-dressed men and women, and not least the magical music they made all make it easy to view this “at will” employment environment as romantic and exciting.
Stories of Charles Mingus punching his trombonist over a “workplace disagreement,” Miles Davis angrily demanding weeks of back pay from Charlie Parker, and Wynton Kelly showing up to record on Davis’s Kind of Blue album, only to find that his predecessor had been rehired, all make for good summer reading. But precarious work is painful and stressful, and it no doubt was even for the fashionable geniuses of yesteryear. The history of jazz is yet another good reminder that stable work is an enormous blessing.
The majority of workers today don’t have a union to help them get the pay they deserve when an employer pulls a stunt. Millions of workers go from short term contract to short term contract, without the stability that allows for healthy progress through life. Even more don’t have any workplace health benefit or retirement plans.
The Toronto Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh has written a series of articles giving a window into this world. The latest is on temp agencies and their recent proliferation, and the challenges faced by affected workers.
I recommend everyone read her work. It’s the farthest thing from romantic and exciting that I can imagine. Maybe put on some dissonant and unsettling jazz while you read it. Maybe some late-period Coltrane.