She was paid $50 a night when she sang in "Three Guys and a Doll" in 1958. Now, at age 75 and nearing retirement, she has no pension to fall back on — and is asking the clubs to help out.
"Because jazz is considered the national treasure of America, there should be a greater concern for each musician who has paid a dear price to learn his or her craft," she testified Wednesday in front of the New York City Council. "We demand the just rewards of receiving a pension in our old age."
St. John, several other musicians and a representative of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802 labour union asked the city council for help. Unlike musicians who appear on Broadway or those who sing at the Metropolitan Opera, jazz singers in New York City don't receive benefits.
"Jazz musicians need pensions," said trumpeter Jimmy Owens, 70. "They need to enjoy the same benefits received by their brother and sister musicians on Broadway and in the symphonic field. The need is real."
John O'Connor, the union's vice-president, told the council it would cost jazz clubs about $22 per performance — many of which take place in packed houses paying cover charges and drink minimums — to create a pension fund for the city's aging musicians. It would vest in three years.
O'Connor said he has approached six of the city's most venerable jazz clubs, including Birdland and the Village Vanguard, about the idea but has been rebuffed.
Calls to the clubs on Wednesday went unreturned or met with no comment. Jazz club managers have said the musicians are independent contractors and therefore the clubs were not responsible for funding their pensions.
The city council adopted a resolution of support for the musicians' call, but that has no legal authority. Councilmembers said they would revisit the issue soon and hope to broker an agreement.
"The sad truth is that some of the most talented musicians in the world have playing at the most famous clubs in the U.S. and now, as they retire, they are literally destitute," said Democratic councilmember Corey Johnson.