Tag Archives: New York

NYC Beginning to Come Alive!

Having lived in New York City for over 40 years, I’ve learned that a very important part of what makes this vibrant, pulsating, multi-cultural city so special is the people who live here and the tourists who visit. During normal times, walking around the five boroughs of New York can be like a world tour. Each borough is composed of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own flavor. The first indication that you’ve entered a wonderfully different and fascinating part of the city is the language that can be overheard (in addition to English) and then the distinctive foods that are available, associated with that neighborhood’s predominant culture.

Both the United States and Canada are nations of immigrants, and our countries have benefitted greatly from their talent, work ethic, and often the genius that immigrants have contributed to our societies. With all the political controversy that swirls around us daily, particularly the demonizing of immigration in the US, it’s important never to lose sight of how much we have gained from accepting and embracing those from other countries who have a burning desire to become an American or a Canadian citizen.

New Yorkers have learned to live together in what is a very densely populated city. Last March and April, the density became painfully evident as the coronavirus swept through New York City, infecting many people. Downstate New York became the world’s hotspot for coronavirus, and the fear was that our hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units would become overwhelmed. Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio made daily television appearances updating the current coronavirus numbers (reporting new cases, new hospitalizations, released hospital patients, and, sadly, deaths).

Both the governor and the mayor would beseech New Yorkers to do everything they could to bend the spiking upward curve in the opposite direction. New Yorkers heeded the warnings and complied by sheltering in place, wearing masks if one needed to leave home, washing hands often, and social distancing. “The City That Never Sleeps” was forced into slumber. New York City became something akin to a ghost town as the traffic disappeared and sidewalks emptied (see inset photo).

West 42nd St. in New York City, a major crosstown thoroughfare, has been devoid of traffic or pedestrians for months, as seen in this photo.

Compliance with guidance from our state and city governments has been the key to bringing our COVID-19 numbers down to much more manageable levels, allowing the New York AFM office, along with our Toronto, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, offices to re-open cautiously and slowly with very reduced staff, rotating days, and flexible hours. Body temperatures are taken each morning as the AFM staff arrives at the NYC office. All AFM offices are marked to maintain social distancing and masks are worn when leaving workstations or personal offices. Personal Protection Equipment (hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks) is readily available to the staff. For now, the offices are open to AFM staff only, no visitors at this time.

It is painful to watch reports as other areas of the United States become the new coronavirus hotspots. I am left dumbfounded by the pictures of huge gatherings at beaches and pools, bars and parties—so many people ignoring the social-distancing and mask-wearing guidance based on science. In some way, they must have felt themselves invulnerable to the virus. Risking their own lives is one thing, but risking the lives of all those they come into contact with afterwards is quite another. No one has the right to act irresponsibly by risking the lives of others because they’re bored, tired of staying sheltered, or believe they have an unrestricted right to do what they please. 

Think about all the first responders, healthcare workers, and medical professionals who are willing to risk their lives in order to save the lives of others. Why would one want to risk becoming part of the problem unnecessarily? Banging pots and pans from front yards and apartment balconies to show appreciation for our healthcare heroes is a beautiful statement recognizing the sacrifices they make on a daily basis, but we are all responsible for staying as safe as possible to hopefully avoid the need for their services.

Of course, there are no guarantees we won’t catch this very contagious virus. We all assume some level of risk every time we leave our homes, but taking unnecessary risks by acting irresponsibly is an open invitation to a deadly virus that puts all of us at risk. We can and we must do better. Please stay safe.

Kenny Seymour: Bringing the Music of The Temptations to Broadway and Beyond

Music Director Underscores the Universality of Music

Ain’t Too Proud is the story of the influential Motown group The Temptations, and their journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during the turbulent times of the 1960s. It is a show filled with the group’s signature dance moves and iconic music—and it recently received 12 Tony award nominations.

Seymour is the man behind the music of the show, and he has been with the production since nearly the beginning.

“As the music director, I’m somewhat the all-around music person. … I’m teaching vocals, conducting the band, playing the show, working with the orchestra, and maintaining the musical integrity of the show as it goes in the long run,” he says. “Over time, you need to make sure that you have the same show because things change and you want to make sure the integrity of the music remains the same so that everyone is getting the same incredible experience.”

The show started with a five-week workshop in New York in January 2017. Prior to that, Seymour was prepping the piano vocal scores and vocal arrangements to be able to teach for the first day of rehearsal. After New York, the show went to Berkeley, California, and after a brief hiatus played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and the Prince of Wales in Toronto, Canada.

“And then we got the news that we had gotten the Imperial [Theatre on Broadway]. That was phenomenal. It was overwhelming because there was so much work and so much love that went into this production from the very beginning,” he says. “That was like the end of the marathon that you enjoyed running.”

During the touring, the production played with a core group of musicians and picked up local union talent in each city they visited. Seymour’s job was to teach and train the local musicians to play at the musical standard and quality for the show, he says. Now that they are on Broadway, the musicians (all active members of Local 802) are the same, but when the show goes on national tour (which it will in 2020, the news was recently announced) Seymour will return to the road with the rest of the creative team to set up the shows in various cities.

All of this touring is done under union contracts. “The contracts set parameters that allow us to operate under guidelines that are established for every other creative art so that we are a respected unit of the entire creation as well as the entire production,” Seymour says. “It adds an order of structure and support: When to be in rehearsal, when to schedule breaks, when the doubles are, what payment will be in overtime. The rules are there, everything is laid out, it’s clear, there’s no questioning about what you have to do.”

“I believe that it is important to have an organization like the musicians union to enable us to be supported in a way that allows us to do our jobs without worrying about being taken advantage of, and having certain guidelines so that we can create freely and really be focused on what we do as musicians, which is to create and to play music.”

Seymour says he feels fortunate because he loves going to work every day and playing in a show whose music is “like a soundtrack to people’s lives.” And that is one of the things Seymour says he loves about music: its universality. Years ago, when he toured Japan with a band named Zhané, Seymour remembers how the entire audience would sing along but, after the show, when the fans would come up to the musicians, it turned out most of them did not actually speak English—they just knew the words to the songs. “The music was so universal and cross cultural that they knew it, they felt it, and they loved it,” he says. “That’s the one thing I love about musicians and being a musician: I can speak that language with anybody in the world.”

Seymour himself was influenced by music as a young age through his parents. His mother was in the original company for the Broadway production of Hair, while his father was a member of the group Little Anthony and the Imperials. Seymour’s mother would actually take him as a baby to Hair rehearsals. At age 4 Seymour started playing piano, and by age 7 he was singing commercial jingles professionally. (Ever hear the commercials for Lite Brite? Some of those are him at age 9.) As a teenager, Seymour transitioned from children’s jingles to playing his piano in local bands, and doing club shows and wedding gigs.

He attended the Manhattan School of Music and Berklee College of Music and over a 20-year career has amassed a large resume of accomplishments, including performing live and in studio with numerous established artists; musical director for artists, bands, symphony orchestras, and on- and off-Broadway shows; composer for television, movies, and theater productions; and arranger/copyist for television shows and events, including Stevie Wonder’s performance at the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Ball.

Ain’t Too Proud is Seymour’s third time on Broadway, having previously been the synthesizer programmer for the musical Hot Feet in 2006, and music director/conductor/Key 1 for Memphis: The Birth of Rock and Roll in 2009.

Seymour first joined the union when he worked on Hot Feet, which was also his Broadway debut. “I wanted to be a Local 802 member for a sense of solidarity, a respect for the craft, having a team behind you,” he says. “A lot of times musicians are looked at as—you’ve heard the term music is ‘not a real job,’ that you’re just ‘playing’—so it gives you a fortification to the business that music is and the craft that it is. It’s not just a hobby and it’s not just something that people do in the park for fun. It’s actually a business, a job.”

Seymour says that, to him, a union of musicians means solidarity. “It means providing healthcare for musicians who would not otherwise have it, or the opportunity or access to healthcare. It means a community of support, a community of knowledge. It means that if you don’t know what to charge or how to approach a certain situation you have somebody to go to bat for you, and in case there are situations that may not be in your best interest from a professional standpoint, somebody has your back.”

And, of course, Seymour loves his job and his union because of the musicians. “One thing that I really enjoy is the fact that everybody on the creative team loves music and it’s so seamless … there’s a common goal and the telling of the story and the way that the music is intertwined helps move it forward in such a way that you’re affected by the brilliant book,” he says. “Also, having musicians that really understand the music and really feel it. Everybody in the band really loves the music and takes it to heart; it’s not just notes on a page. And I think that makes the difference when you’re playing live: You can play the notes, but to be able to convey emotion with those notes is something totally different.”

While he is busy

on Broadway currently, Seymour’s musical interests are varied. He loves composing (especially for films; he says that as a kid he “fell in love with Star Wars and was a John Williams fanboy”). One of his current side projects is composing for the “English Egg” Language series—an English acquisition program for young children that uses storybooks, songs, and play as a first approach to learning English. He started working with the company in 2009 and has composed cues for every release since its inception.

Local 802 Awards First Grant to Emerging Artists

Local 802 (New York City)’s new grant program, the Emerging Artists Project, is poised to award its inaugural grant after a long selection process. Sixteen highly esteemed musicians listened to and rated all the applicants and an in-house committee evaluated the application materials (performance history, business plan, audience base, social justice, and education components).

The Roxy Coss Quintet was chosen as the winner of this year’s prize. The quintet is made up of Roxy Coss (saxophone/leader), Alex Wintz (guitar), Miki Yamamoto (piano), Rick Rosato (bass), and Jimmy Macbride (drums). Coss is also the founding director of the Women in Jazz Organization. The exciting quintet edged out 51 other applicants and will receive $10,000 per year, for four years. The grant may be used any way the band sees fit, allowing them to grow into a fully professional and cohesive ensemble over the four-year term. Coss, as leader, has signed a one-year agreement with Local 802 covering all their work, establishing minimum pay scales for all future dates, and including contributions to the AFM-EPF. All members of the quintet have agreed to become members of the union.

Local 802 is facing many of the same systemic problems as other unions across the country: declining membership, a decline in the amount of covered work, and a new generation of professionals who do not understand the benefits of a union or of collective bargaining. A crucial element of our mission as a union is to support live music and encourage those who perform it.

Even at this early stage of the Emerging Artists Project, we can say that it is beginning to address those systemic issues and further our own stated mission. Among the 52 completed applications we received this year, the pool of musicians totaled almost 400. Of those, almost three-quarters have had no previous connection to, or contact with, the union and were not members.

Most of the applicant groups described themselves as multi-genre or alternative, areas where we have few contracts. We had bands who took inspiration from ’60s film soundtracks, bands who combined Bollywood and jazz, and bands who played hip-hop music influenced by classical traditions. It is an exciting mix that performs at a very high level.  These are perfect examples of the kinds of musicians we want to attract to the union. This project has shown itself to be a useful tool in doing just that.

We have many people to thank for the success of the Emerging Artists Project. Many people at Local 802 worked tirelessly to launch this project, including staff and officers. We would like to thank the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, based at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in New York City, for partnering with us in this launch. St. Luke’s will be providing discounted rehearsal space and recording studio space and time, as well as mentoring the winning ensemble, should they decide to avail themselves of it. Special thanks go to Local 802 Executive Board Member and harpist Sara Cutler. She was integral to the conception and implementation of this program. I personally thank her for her indefatigable work in ensuring that this program succeeds.

As president of Local 802, I hope to oversee more initiatives like the Emerging Artists Project within our union. As unions face unprecedented pressure across the country, it becomes more important that we think and act creatively to counter those external pressures. This is a good start.

Cabaret Law Abolished After 91 Years

At the end of November, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation that will repeal the 91-year-old “cabaret” law that nightclub owners, performers, and the AFM have tried to eliminate since its inception.

The antiquated law prohibited dancing in bars and restaurants that did not possess a cabaret license and were originally created to curb speakeasies during Prohibition.

The law had long faced challenges and complaints about its uneven and discriminatory enforcement. All aspects of the law were repealed except for two safety requirements. Establishments must install and maintain security cameras, and if they employ security guards, they must be licensed.

“We want to be a city where people can work hard, and enjoy the city’s nightlife without arcane bans on dancing,” says de Blasio.

Union Blasts Company for Using Out of State Contractors to Build Wind Farm

In October, the New York State Laborers Organizing Fund held a rally in front of the American Wind Energy Association investor conference in Manhattan, New York. The union says that the California-based company EDF Renewable Energy hired out-of-state workers to build a wind farm in Lewis County in order to avoid paying prevailing wages.

“EDF’s decision to use out-of-state contractors to perform work being subsidized by New York tax dollars is a disgrace,” says John Hutchings, director of the New York State Laborers Organizing Fund. “Public subsidies should come with public responsibilities. We should be using the state’s limited development resources to fund projects that provide middle class jobs.”