Judy West, Retired Jazz Singer and Labor Activist

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Judy West, 94, who has pursued issues of inequality for decades from her Upper West Side Manhattan home, describes herself as an optimistic jazz singer, avid reader — and political activist who is very sensitive to social injustices.

For years, she was the political director for Local 802, the Musicians’ Union in New York City, a perch from which she joined with others in the Labor movement to rally for a host of social justice causes.

She continues her work today, joining in with tenants’ rights groups to protest unfair housing practices. “Since my retirement (in 2000) I have been the Labor Coordinator for Tenants and Neighbors and now for Tenants PAC,” she said.

Her parents, she said, were progressives and raised her to be an independent, assertive woman. but much of her learning came from the world. Her father was a singer.

She was in grade school in New York City, just seven years old, when a fellow student said she did not want to sit by another boy, despite entreaties by the teacher. “I realized that it was because the boy was black. So I put up my hand and went to sit beside him. That was my first act of resistance.”

Many more followed. “Being active, being part of a collective movement takes you out of yourself, takes you to a place where you realize that a victory is not just for yourself, but for all those with whom you are linked.

“It’s a search for justice,” she explained, adding, “It became part of my DNA.”

She grew up during the  Great Depression, which “convinced me that an economic and political catastrophe of this magnitude should never happen again. From that young age, and for the rest of my long life, I have been active in a score of movements that define ‘power to the people.’ “

She worked as a singer, a jazz singer, and a marketing and media executive in advertising. In 1973, she opened a book and record store called “Seize the Time,” partnering with members of the Black Panther Party. “We lived in a commune at the time,” she said. Her involvement with the Panthers began when she saw a spate of killings of Panther members increasing across the country, and had a “moment of cognition.”

“Frederick Douglass said about cognition that if you look at a pear, you perceive what it is. But if you take a bite of a pear, than you have cognition of what it really is.”

Her last job was as Public Relations and Political Director for Local 802, AFM.

She married, but her husband, a violinist, died at the age of 42. She has raised two sons, one a singer, with grandchildren and one grandchild.

In 2013, she received a Clara Lemlich Award, an honor named for one of the leaders of the union organizing response to the death of 147 workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan in 1911. The award recognizes women in their 80s, 90s and 100s who have worked for the greater good for their entire lives.

Judy had wanted social activism to be a central part of her career. She explained she would have stayed working in the Musician’s Union forever if she had not grown old. She loved her job at the union and described both the work they did and her staff as extraordinary.

“We made history at 802. We got the ‘Cabaret Law’ overturned,” she said. The law prohibited dancing without a special license.

As a jazz singer herself, Judy West has always been fond of music. She declined to pinpoint a favorite musician, but describes all musicians as the best type of people. Her husband had also been a musician, a violinist.

One of her sons is also considered an important violin teacher. She considers musicians to be the nicest and smartest of all people, describing their relationship with the audience as organic. She stated that musicians are “more emotional than males are allowed to be.” Even her great granddaughter, aged 11, can sing many songs from the musical “Hamilton.”

-Terry H. Schwadron and Lisbeth Brosnan

 

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