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Saving Jazz Musicians, One at a Time

by Nat Hentoff 

Once I moved from being a fan of jazz musicians and actually came to know more of them as a jazz journalist, I became aware – sometimes vividly – of how hard it was for some of them to make a living.  What I hadn’t seen in the jazz magazines was that many players, even leaders, had no health insurance, let alone pensions.

And in a revealing National Public Radio series in April, 2005, Felix Contraras reported that, “like the working poor, many jazz players and their families don’t have regular doctors, so in a crisis they wind up in emergency rooms.”

In the 1950s, while I was working for Down Beat in New York, I used to see fundraising ads in movie theatres for the Will Rogers Home where elderly actors and seriously ailing younger ones were well taken of and I’d grumblingly wonder if there’d ever be some kind of equivalent for jazz musicians in deep need.

And, wow – there came into being the Jazz Foundation of America, which now accurately describes itself as, “the only national organization dedicated to saving the homes and lives of elder jazz and blues musicians in crisis.”  Though the elderly are the majority being brought back to life and their instruments, a player of any age in an emergency is not turned down.

In its current 2011-2012 report, executive director Wendy Oxenhorn – who, at times has fed a hungry musician in her own home – reports that during these national recession blues, “We stayed true to our mandate to provide Social Services to jazz and blues musicians in the form of housing, emergency services, health care, and employment.  In addition, we continued to help promote jazz and blues by creating nearly 3,700 performance opportunities [many in schools]…”

“As the recession deepened,” Wendy Oxenhorn continued, “for so many people… Even more so for our musicians, as live music and paying venues and even festivals are at an all-time low.”

Many of the musicians who count on the Jazz Foundation are over 50, but younger players are far from immune to life-changing crisis.  But, as the Foundation notes, “because of physical limitations as a result of aging, it is harder for the elderly to travel [and when work is available] to keep up a demanding work schedule.”

Says Freddie Hubbard: “When I had congestive heart failure and couldn’t work, the Jazz Foundation paid my mortgages for several months and saved my home!  Thank God for these people!”

Another jazzman: “When [Hurricane] Katrina hit, I lost all my belongings and all my music and was relocated to Texas.  The Jazz Foundation made it possible for me to come home and go back to work.”

In providing medical care, the Foundation – thanks to Dizzy Gillespie – makes possible a singularly historic breakthrough.  Dizzy was more of an active humanitarian than anyone I’ve known in any field.  And as a number of his sidemen told me, he was a mentor to them, not only in jazz.  When Dizzy was dying of cancer in 1993 at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, he asked his physician, Frank Forte, to “get the hospital to give jazz musicians the kind of medical care I’m getting that they can’t afford.”

The result: The Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund at Englewood Hospital by which, explains the Jazz Foundation, “When a musician comes to us with a health issue, we send them to Englewood in New Jersey and they take them in – without charge – for exams, x-rays, MRIs, blood work, surgeries.  We have seen over the years that this can even mean the diagnosis and treatment of late-stage cancer for an uninsured musician.”

No musician is ever turned away.

The Foundation is always at the ready to prevent evictions and homelessness, paying rent and utilities costs.  I’ve known desperate musicians who had gathered all they could of their instruments, arrangements, and other possessions in fear of being thrown out on the street.  The Foundation arrived and, they’re still where they want to be – at home.

The Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program, named for one of the Foundation’s most dedicated funders, during the 2011-2012 Report, as related to me by associate director Joseph Petrocelli, “created 3,692 performance opportunities [along with other projects], reaching nearly 86,000 audience members of all ages, from public school children to seniors in elder care.”

Letters I’ve seen from public school teachers about these gigs make clear that these students now having been introduced to jazz, even dancing to it, will learn to be exposed to much more.  Moreover, Petrocelli added:

“Wendy Oxenhorn launched Jazz in the Schools to also preserve the legacy of jazz by enlisting elder masters of jazz and blues who are in need of work to play educational performances introducing these public school children to jazz.  Since then, the performances have included venues like children’s hospitals and nursing homes.”

Further indicative of the Foundation’s range of creativity, “The Musicians Legacy Program funds one-on-one lessons by elder, established musicians with young up-and-coming musicians.  It provides a paid gig for the musician giving the lesson and a learning opportunity for a student who might otherwise not be able to afford it.”

Also, in addition to the already cited first-ever Musicians Emergency Housing Fund to prevent homelessness, the Foundation keeps planning for a central residence for jazz musicians where they can also be reached for engagements. Included would be a rehearsal hall and various other amenities.

There’s a lot more to tell about the Jazz Foundation of America, including the far-ranging aid it gave abandoned New Orleans musicians after the Katrina hurricane.  It’s basic contact information:

Jazz Foundation of America, 322 West 46th Street, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10036.  Phone: (212) 245-3999.   Fax: (646) 786-4999. Contributions are decidedly and harmoniously welcome.

On coming to recognize the partial extent of what  I have reported about the Foundation’s mission, it is, I find, inspirational to know the actual number of its workers who keep doing so much.  Says the JFA:

It consists of, “seven full-time staff, and averages nearly 6,000 cases a hear as it continues its mission of saving jazz and blues, one musician at a time.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve long been on the Board of the Foundation, but because of my octogenarian arthritis in a foot that makes walking difficult, I don’t go to the meetings and vote there.  I’ve made it my gig to keep reporting on why the Jazz foundation gets responses from such musicians as drummer Rudy Walker:

“JFA is an incredible blessing.   Thanks to them, I had hip-replacement surgery.  And when my house burned down, there were there for me.”

I often refer in my writings to “the family of jazz.”  The Jazz Foundation keeps it grooving.

Nat Hentoff is one of the foremost authorities on jazz culture and history.  He joined Down Beat magazine as a columnist in 1952 and served as that publication’s associate editor from 1953-57.  Hentoff was a columnist and staff writer with The Village Voice for 51 years, from 1957 until 2008, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Jazz Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker, among many other outlets.

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