Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

I recently wrote a letter for inclusion in a packet of materials to be submitted on the behalf of a European improviser so that he might obtain an O-1 Visa, which would allow him unfettered entry into the US for three years. Luckily, I had written another such letter two years ago with the guidance of one of the very few experts on such matters in the US providing services to this community of artists. By changing the names and some facts (the superlatives survived intact), I had the letter off in short order, accompanied by a note asking to be kept updated. Last week, I received word: “The visa petition was approved – which means I have permission to apply for a visa …” (his ellipsis)

The rules had changed, making the process even more byzantine and expensive than before. Fees to the government and States-side facilitators regularly exceed $2,000 (including a $200 pay-off to the American Federation of Musicians), particularly if the applicant wants anything resembling a timely decision; that requires a grand for what the government innocuously calls “premium processing,” the value of which is reportedly shrinking. Additionally, applicants face sundry charges for courier delivery, special photographs, and a biometric passport; the extortive telephone rates for enquiries that invariably yield the same information as the forms are optional. The costs are prohibitive for anyone but the most renowned improvisers and jazz musicians, who can muster sufficiently offsetting fees.

There are more hurdles for artists who directly engage with presenters and therefore have multiple employers whenever they come to the US. This necessitates producing an itinerary with the dates, venues, addresses, and the terms for remuneration for each performance. Even though the application may be for a year or more, the visa will likely only be granted for the period specified in the itinerary. Experts recommend a minimum of 6-12 dates every 2-3 months to be approved for a one-year visa. The musician can reduce the number of performances in the second and last years of a three-year visa period, but there’s no hard rule as to how many are enough. This is just one of several points in the process where bureaucrats make judgment calls that result in a visa for a period far shorter than a year or three, or even rejection. There are only two offices in the US that process these applications, one of which makes the occasional rogue decision; professionals subsequently maneuver to have their clients’ applications reviewed by the other. The bottom line is that these new restrictions further depress an artist’s incentive for running the gauntlet in the first place: A three-year period in which an artist is not required to start from Square One each time the opportunity for a few gigs presents itself. (And, it begs a question you think someone in the government would have already asked: Doesn’t three years of almost continuous work in the US make an artist, in effect, a resident alien, thereby indicating the issuance of a Green Card instead?)

European musicians have entered the US without a visa for decades. Generally, it has worked with few notorious exceptions, one of the best known being Derek Bailey, who, in 1979,  was dispatched back to London on the next flight because he forthrightly told authorities that he was coming in for gigs. Instruments were easily explained, particularly if a business card or correspondence from a reputable repair shop was produced on cue. Until recently, despite all of the post-9/11 hassles entailed in air travel to and from the US, musicians’ biggest complaint was carry-on luggage restrictions that forced them to leave a horn at home or test new flight cases.

That’s changed, dramatically. Big Brother’s got Google (which is why the half-dozen musicians consulted for this article are not named). Even though Europeans can enter the US without a visa, they must fill out an online form on the US Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) site 72 hours prior to arrival in the US. Persons entering as tourists who have previously been issued work permits are flagged for review by airport-based authorities. By the time a musician presents his or her passport, a thorough online search has most likely been conducted, and even meager door gigs have come on the radar. Two recent cases point up how European musicians are now snared.

In the first case, the musician was originally coming to the US for a recording session, which can easily be kept on the down low – and, technically, does not require a visa if the musician is not paid while in the US.. But, in the weeks before his trip, word of his arrival had spread, and offers of door gigs and jam sessions ensued. His processing at the immigration station upon arrival went a bit too quickly, he thought at the time. He was then approached as he waited for his bags: There’s been a technical problem; please follow us; etc. The musician then spent hours in the immigration room. His passport and ticket were taken, presumably to negotiate his return flight. After many trivial questions, authorities showed him the search listings for the little gigs and jam sessions. He claimed he wasn't making any money on these gigs, and wasn't aware that what he thought were informal jam sessions had been formally announced, but the Feds didn’t buy it. The musician was allowed three phone calls to US numbers; he was then fingerprinted and escorted onto the plane for the return flight. His passport was not returned to him until his arrival in Europe.

In the other case, the musician was just about to clear immigration when they found a work permit from a few years ago in his passport. He was then Googled. When they discovered his two gigs, he was taken aside and handcuffed. After a three-hour interrogation, he was taken to a Federal facility, where he spent the night in a cell. His cell phone and computer were confiscated. He was able to reach his parents, who managed to get their embassy to call immigration officials, who would not either confirm or deny that the musician was being held. He was deported the next day. One of the uglier features of this episode is that the musician was berated by an official who repeated the accusation: “You have come here to steal our money.” The musician unsuccessfully tried to explain how his government funded his fees, which were channeled through the ensemble’s leader, a significant figure in the history of jazz and improvised music in his country. This fact arguably precludes the need for a visa, one professional suggested, but he was quick to add that this is a fine point beyond the grasp of most airport-based personnel

As he has done for years, the ensemble’s leader entered the US visa-less without incident a few days before his deported cohort. He now fears that he will be targeted in the future, regardless of his visa status. Other musicians consulted for this piece also expressed the apprehension that simply performing with deported musicians in Europe will generate a problematic Google search the next time they come to the US, even as bona fide tourists. Common sense dictates that they forget America. At the same time, they are saddened by the prospect; they genuinely consider their American audiences to be among the most knowledgeable and supportive, their colleagues to be most generous, and the country at large to be energizing.

All indications are that this situation will worsen. There is no tangible basis to hope for a fair, streamlined and revenue-gleaning system for allowing improvisers and jazz musicians entry into the US, one that accommodates the realities that it often takes several tours over as many years to generate real profits, and that work materializes on a relatively short time horizon. There seems to be very little that can be initiated by Americans beyond a letter-writing campaign. But, Europeans have a potentially useful model: The Cultural Ambassador. Belgium appointed pianist Fred Van Hove to be a Cultural Ambassador of Flanders for a ten-year term in 1996. It’s not like a sash and a diplomatic pouch were bestowed upon Van Hove; but he had access to and support from prominent government officials both at home and abroad. He had official contacts wherever he travelled – actual people who gave him real assistance.

Granted, Van Hove toiled for decades to be in the position to receive such a designation, and the current visa situation in the US tends to impact musicians with fewer years and accomplishments than him. So, this is not a model that can be automatically replicated all over Europe. But, there are European countries – Finland, Holland and Norway come immediately to mind – in which the highly developed infrastructures supporting jazz and improvised music communities could mobilize a campaign to lobby their governments and reframe the issue as one of cultural exchange resolved through diplomacy rather than one of criminal law, senselessly imposed and inviting retaliation. In some countries, American musicians enjoy tax breaks; some face the choice of getting a buzz-cut from the taxman or doing business under the table; and some hold their breath until the CDs pass customs. Both American and European musicians are gaming the systems of the other’s country; clamping down on it is the easiest and worst option.

There’s a far greater reason to mitigate the dysfunction at the junction than the money lost, and the indignities and anger suffered by deported European musicians. Even though European improvisers began coming to the States a little more than thirty years ago, they have only recently become part of the regular fabric of the US scene. The generation that blazed the trails is now in its Indian Summer. It would be a crime if the disincentives to come to the US now convince them to stay home.

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