The Jazz.com Blog
March 07, 2009 · 2 comments
A few weeks back, Nat Hentoff joined on as a new contributor to jazz.com, and wrote about Nesuhi Ertegun and Joel Dorn. Below Hentoff turns his attention to an organization that is working to create a safety net for members of the jazz community who need a helping hand. T.G.
Starting in 1953, when, as the New York editor of Down Beat, I had my first full-time job covering the jazz life, I quickly became aware how hard it was - and still is - for musicians to make a living in jazz. When I was a fan, digging the music, this never came to mind. But I learned that when sick, or forgotten by writers on jazz and club owners or unknown to a new generation of listeners most jazz makers have no medical insurance, and pensions are what old-time labor organizers used to call "pie in the sky."
But about 20 years ago in New York, a group of musicians and lay people for whom jazz is an essential source of regeneration created a safety net for the working family of jazz. The Jazz Foundation of America has kept many musicians from eviction, provided food - there have been jazz greats subsisting on dog food - and medical care.
Wendy Oxenhorn has been the Foundation's ceaselessly and fiercely resourceful executive director for the past nine years. Full disclosure: I'm on the Foundation's Board of Directors, but never have time to go to meetings. I just write about the Foundation to begin to pay back to these players for how vitally they have kept me going for more than 70 years now.
As Wendy recently wrote to donors, the Foundation has not only saved musicians in and around New York, but "since Katrina, has housed and employed over 1,000 New Orleans musicians, and through a partnership with Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, has made free care and operations possible to over 1,000 musicians - 5 million dollars of medical care for free."
Dizzy Gillespie is responsible for this arrangement, which has literally been saving jazz, one musician at a time. When he was dying of pancreatic cancer at Englewood Hospital, Dizzy said to his oncologist, Dr. Frank Forte (who gigs as a jazz guitarist), "I can't give you any money, but I can let you use my name. Promise you'll help musicians less fortunate than I am."
Recently, Douglas Duchak, the president and CEO of the hospital and its medical center, told me: "In death, Dizzy's legacy has touched and sometimes saved the lives of jazz musicians around the world."
And Wendy also cites how the Jazz Foundation "creates employment with dignity for those who have no real way to earn their living on the road anymore, through the Agnes Varis (a major donor) Jazz and Blues in the Schools Program. It brings performances and teaching to schools with no music programs, nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country."
But the collapsing economy has not spared the Jazz Foundation. "Donations," Wendy reports, "are down by half, and yet we have twice the number of musicians coming for help. These are known musicians, who played with legends, and used to have gigs almost every night. They now tell me they're lucky if they get one gig a week!"
One of many current stories I hear from Wendy: "A great musician took a job driving for FedEx, because these days, it's almost impossible to support a wife and three kids with the music alone. Someone caused an accident on the highway, and he was in a coma for three weeks. Had we not paid the rent, his kids would have been evicted while their father was in the hospital.
"Coming out of his coma, he's now able to eat puréed food and is conscious enough to lean over for the first time and kiss one of the children's heads."
There's also, Wendy adds, another new member of the Jazz Foundation Family, "a 91-year-old blues queen from Detroit. She now has her electricity bill paid and has heat in her home. We've also fixed her broken windows so that her heating bill won't be so high. And she now has money for groceries."
Until the last few months, the Jazz Froundation used to say proudly that "we have never lost anyone to homelessness if we found out about it before they were evicted. But in these strange times, that may change. All of us who care about these musicians are needed to keep the music alive."
On May 14, the Jazz Foundation's annual "A Great Night in Harlem" concert will be, appropriately, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where many jazz careers, such as Ella Fitzgerald's, were born. The title of this year's concert, Wendy notes, is "Everything's Gonna Be All Right." That, she adds, is what Little Walter used to sing. At a previous Great Night concert, as I sat in the audience next to Quincy Jones, I read in the program his message to all of us:
"I cannot imagine turning our backs on the very people who gave their lives, their life experiences and the music to us all these years, especially now when they need us most."
This year, more are in need and the need is deeper. Wendy asked me to include in this column:
"The greatest thing anyone can do for these great elder giants who made way for all of today's music, who wrote the hits and never got paid properly and now face eviction and homelessness and even hunger is to donate $10 or $20 to the Jazz Foundation of America at 322 West 48th Street, New York City, NY 10036 or donate online at www.jazzfoundation.org.
"If everyone who cares about this music did that," she continued, "we'd be able to prevent homelessness and even help employ all these great elder musicians."
Actually, at times when the music moves you, this needn't be a one-time donation. Consider it a sustaining way of saying thanks.
This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff