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Ex-professor with a problem: Retirement funds don’t last

Jul 30th, 2012 | By

Julian Priester; photo by Andrea Canter

It’s become an all-too familiar, albeit unsettling, story: A respected jazz musician is struggling during his retirement years. Seattle-based trombonist Julian Priester, 77, is in dire financial straits, his savings gone and medical bills continuing. His family’s home was auctioned off on June 8, 2012, and they will be evicted on August 15.

Priester has dedicated more than 60 years of his life to music. Growing up in Chicago, he jammed with the likes of Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley while in high school; in the 1950s he was in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, toured with Lionel Hampton and Dinah Washington, moved to New York and joined Max Roach’s band. Priester was a favorite sideman on the ’60s New York scene, recording with John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey, and Abbey Lincoln, among others. He toured with Duke Ellington in 1969, and with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet between 1970 and 1973. In 1979 he settled in Seattle and joined the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts, teaching until retirement in 2011.

Priester has been much loved there. Cornish president Nancy Uscher, has written, “Julian Priester is a beloved member of the Cornish community and a jazz great whose presence has brought significant credibility to our school and benefited hundreds of students.” His friends believe he added prestige and legitimacy to the college’s then fledgling jazz program.

These same friends are deeply concerned about Priester’s present situation. More than 60 prominent members of the jazz community, including Herbie Hancock, James Spaulding, Sheila Jordan, Cecil Bridgewater and Stanley Crouch, have signed a letter appealing to the board of trustees and administration of Cornish College to provide Priester with additional financial assistance. Pianist Michele Rosewoman, who has performed with Priester since the 1970s, wrote and circulated the call to action. She wants Cornish to know that the national jazz community is aware of Priester’s grave circumstances, and asks the college to reconsider its no-pension policy.

Cornish does not have a pension plan for its employees, but since 1994 has offered a defined contribution retirement plan through either TIAA/CREFF or Fidelity Investments. All regular staff and full-time faculty are eligible for retirement benefits after one year of service. Thanks to collective bargaining between college administrators and the faculty’s union, Cornish’s contributions to these plans has risen from one per cent of an employee’s gross wages in 1994 to its current level of eight per cent. Employees choose retirement plan investments and are encouraged to contribute themselves, using pre-tax wages.

TIAA/CREFF retirement plans are the industry standard for colleges, universities and conservatories including the Julliard School, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music. Cornish’s current retirement benefits are more generous than many, including Berklee, which matches up to three of an employee’s pay.

As retirement benefits improved at Cornish so did faculty salaries, which for many years were among the lowest in the nation. According to Cornish’s Director of Human Resources Beverly Page, in 2000 a full professor earned on average just under $30,000 per academic year, and now they earn $59,000, making Cornish competitive with comparable institutions like the California Institute of the Arts and the New School.

These increases in salaries and benefits have helped all Cornish faculty members, and in the current financial and employment landscape, a job at Cornish or a similar institution is a coup for musicians, providing regular work, a reasonable salary, health and retirement benefits – in a word, security. These improvements, however, favor younger employees who have time and resources to develop their retirement portfolios.

The picture is less rosy for older faculty members. During Priester’s first 15 years at Cornish, before 1994, the college offered no retirement benefits. This, and its low wages, likely contributed to Priester’s current troubles.

Asked if he personally contributed to his retirement account after 1994, Priester says, “No, I didn’t. The salaries were never enough. I had a family.” He used his funds for daily living expenses and to ensure that his two sons received quality, private-school educations. “We felt that was the best route for our kids,” he adds. “We managed though, until I retired.”

Priester had spent 32 years at Cornish. “The college was making an effort to reduce the age of the faculty. I’m one of the seniors there. There are a few more,” he says. “And actually, with my health issues, it was time. They phased me out over a two-year period. They suggested I retire, and I agreed.” Priester’s workload was reduced to two-thirds during the 2009-2010 academic year, to one-third in 2010-2011. Both years he received a full salary and benefits.

“I hung in there as long as I could, way past retirement age,” adds Priester. He hoped that as the college’s student body grew, Cornish would implement a pension plan. “That was my dream, and that just didn’t materialize.”

He understands the college cannot make an exception for him: “If they gave me a pension, they would have to give everyone on the faculty a pension. They don’t have the resources to set up a pension for everyone.”

Yet the benefit packages offered by Cornish continue to evolve. Paul Taub, a professor of flute performance who recently became president of the union representing all instructors at Cornish, Taub joined the school’s faculty the same year as Priester (1979), and says that he, along with the Cornish Federation of Teachers, “looks forward to working with [President] Nancy Uscher and her commitment to improvement on a number of issues, including shared governance and retirement benefits.”

While Cornish has not offered Priester additional financial assistance, it did help him find health care coverage when he retired. He was awarded an honorary doctorate and designated a professor emeritus, with the option of returning to give lectures, workshops, and seminars, and to teach an occasional course. In response to the letter of appeal to Cornish circulated by Rosewoman, Dr. Uscher expressed gratitude for his years of service.

But in the single year since his retirement Priester has depleted the funds in his Cornish retirement account, which amounted to roughly a year’s salary. That “doesn’t really measure up to the task of being retired,” he says. “Without a salary for the past year, I was using those savings to exist: pay my bills, mortgage, feed myself. I had medical issues that also ate up some of that money.”

Priester received a liver transplant in 2000 and takes medications to make sure his body doesn’t reject the liver. “I don’t have a choice. I have tp purchase my prescriptions,” he explains. These same medications, however, have damaged his kidneys. He now requires dialysis three times a week and is awaiting a kidney transplant.

Adding to his problems, Priester fell behind on his mortgage payments and lost his house. Finding a way to stay in his home of 28 years has become his primary concern. Ideally, he would like someone to purchase the house and allow him to rent it or, even more generously, donate it to him.

Earlier this month, the Jazz Foundation of America stepped in to pay Priester’s utility bills and provide an attorney to negotiate with his mortgage company.  The JFA has also pledged to help Priester find a more sustainable living situation. “We are corralling all our resources to support Julian make a smooth transition if need be,” Rosewoman wrote in an e-mail.

The Jazz Showcase in Chicago has also offered to host a benefit, with all of the proceeds donated to Priester. This could happen at the end of August, around the time of the annual Chicago Jazz Fest held over Labor Day weekend.

“Things are going to get better,” Priester asserts. He plans on making a full recovery after his kidney transplant and is committed to returning to performing. During his years in academia, Priester scaled back touring to focus on teaching, thinking this was best for his students. Now he is ready to take the stage with his latest ensemble “Priester’s Cue.”

“Music is my life. That’s what I do. I don’t plan on giving that up.”

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3 Comments to “Ex-professor with a problem: Retirement funds don’t last”

  1. avatar Marijo Johnson says:

    So sorry to hear about Julian’s problems and will keep him in my prayers. Unfortunately, this sad state of affairs happens historically to musicians and other performing artists who did not make informed decisions about needs in older age and/or illness. LIfe is difficult enough in these harsh economic times, but it is doubly hard for seniors without health benefits. While Cornish seems to have helped somewhat, it seems heartless that more cannot be done under the circumstances and especially after all of the years of service that Julian gave to the school and its students. Here’s hoping that something, someone or a coalition of someones can bring about a miraculous feat that results in Julian’s total recovery and a comfortable home for him and his family.

    God bless him and keep him in faith.

  2. avatar JJA Editor says:

    The jazz community’s response to hearing about Dr. Julian Priester’s circumstance was moving to say the least. Many expressed outrage and concern.

    The reply received from the Cornish School of the Arts in response to the jazz community letter of appeal on behalf of Julian Priester — which was not intended as a legal confrontation by any means — was non-commital, pointing out that standard procedure was implemented in his case. And true, there is no legal responsibility.

    The president’s reply claims Julian as “a beloved member of the Cornish community’. We asked that Cornish concern itself with his crisis — show that love, and be a part of a solution. AND that they reconsider their no-pension policy. There was no expectation that they would reverse this policy solely for Julian. Julian is grateful for the individual response of a few from within the department who did concern themselves and looked into ways to assist, and in the process, found a balance due him which was immediately paid, and helpful.

    Both Dr. Priester and I appreciate the factual article written by Ms. Hayes in that it helps to brings further and necessary attention to a very real problem. But we find the constant ‘standard practice’ and ‘industry standard’ references to be the terminology widely used to excuse policies that do not work ultimately for many.
    As regards Cornish College and in response to Ms. Hayes’ lengthy article, Julian Priester sums it up in a few words with the following comment:

    “While the evidence of progress softens the image of neglect, adherence to the ‘industry” standard’ cloaks it with the image of acceptability..The problem remains.”

    We thank the jazz community for all the love shown and want you to know that Julian Priester will be evicted on August 15th 2012.

    Michele Rosewoman

  3. Long story short: I was listening to Julian’s record “In Deep End Dance” today and decided to see if I could find out what he was up to… to say the least, I was shocked come across the news of his hardships. I was a student at Cornish from 1979-1982 and the magic that Julian, Gary Peacock, Art Lande, Jerry Granelli, and all the great Seattle jazz musicians teaching there shared with me has defined my life as a musician. I now reside in the Chicago area, Julian’s hometown, so he is never far from my thoughts. If there is anything I can do to help, I will. Please pass my love and appreciation on to Julian.

    Steve Jacobson

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