The Jazz.com Blog
August 24, 2009 · 0 comments
Nat Hentoff, a regular contributor to this column, writes below about that greatest of rarities: a safety net for jazz artists in need. Below he profiles the Jazz Foundation of America and Wendy Oxenhorn. Their efforts deserve to be far better known and more amply supported. T.G.
When I was a very young reporter in Boston, key advice I heard from my elders was, "To make sure a story is read, put a face on it!" That's what I'd like to do for the Jazz Foundation of America and its rhythm section, headed by Wendy Oxenhorn, which bring abandoned musicians back to life and jazz. She recently described one of her customary gigs to me:
"A very great musician (name and instrument omitted to respect his privacy) moved to New York last week. In a far-off state, he'd lost his house, studio, equipment, his neighborhood. He is also blind. A very independent person, he has never asked us for help."
Wendy called him, and found that "he had no basics. He needed everything from trash baskets, food, sheets, pillows, a desk, broom, dishes, drinking glasses." She then went shopping for hours, and came back with "a mop, broom, dust pan, batteries, trash bags, a quilt, hand soap, toilet papers and more."
As she points out, this wasn't "one of those life-and-death moments or poverty situations we sometimes have, but just the kind of story representing what we do daily. This time, I never realized just what a hardship it is to go shopping, even for food, when you're blind and you're alone, having lost the world where you knew every step to get around."
Wendy shopped and brought batches of provisions to the musician's new home in New York. But how had he found an apartment?
"A wonderful human being – he was at our last 'Great Night in Harlem' concert at the Apollo Theater – had been a fan of this musician for years, and got him into an apartment at an affordable rent, because he owned it and gave it to him for half price. He even left a beautiful bed, a leather couch and a table and chairs."
At the apartment, Wendy continued, "we were both exhausted after five hours of cleaning, putting sheets on the bed, moving things. Neither of us had eaten, so we found a great West Indian restaurant. If you could have seen his complete joy for this homemade food and fresh ginger drink. I got some extra food to bring home in case he got hungry at night, since neither of us had any strength left to grocery shop."
That was just a start. "When there's a need," she told me, "we call one of the younger musicians who are always in need of work, pay them ten dollars an hour, and pair him or her up with someone, like this newcomer to town, who needed assistance. I told my new legendary friend he'd soon have another friend.
"It never fails when this kind of contact is made. As soon as they spend any time together at all, they're talking music, exchanging CDs, the mentoring process begins, and they start to collaborate."
The day after Wendy's first shopping expedition was Sunday, and of course, she was back at work. "The young musician brought his girlfriend, and the three of us went to an enormous store that has everything under the sun. We got a bath mat so he wouldn't slip, a small vacuum cleaner, and of course, the right forks that had sharp points – because I noticed that when he eats, he stabs at his food, and that's how he gets it in the fork."
When they arrived at the new New Yorker's house, "We pretended it was 'Let's Make A Deal,' and we showed him what was behind door number one, then two and three!
"He kept feeling his new items, and the smile on his face was bigger than the one on mine. He was so happy, kept thanking us, and said it was 'Christmas in July.' By the time we left, he had everything he needed: dishes were washed and in the cupboard, clothes hung in closets, the quilt cover was on the blanket, the place had been dusted. Except for the desk we bought, because we couldn't carry it, he had every basic he needed to begin his new life."
Of all the people I've written about and gotten to know – a homicide detective, a Supreme Court justice, and a few school principals – among them, no one has been as totally and ceaselessly committed to her vocation as Wendy Oxenhorn. Dig how she helped welcome this musician to his new world.
"We also got menus from the area, and I left him a message on his machine. Knowing he could never read the menus, I gave him the number to each – how much the food was and what they had – so he could program it all into his computer in the program we had gotten him that allows the blind to record information as well as to compose music!
"I also walked him through the apartment and let him feel where everything was, and described the stove and went over it carefully so he'd see how to use it and how to find everything we had stored in the cabinets, and which closet we put the vacuum in, et cetera.
"I called him last night to make sure he had all he needed. He was so happy, you could hear his smile. You know how people sound when they are smiling so much you can hear it over the phone?"
Wendy finished her chorus: "It's these small individual life-saving moments that make the difference. Sometimes it doesn't even cost more than ten dollars to make a little magic."
If you want to add to this magic, contributions can be made to the Jazz Foundation of America's website or by mail to 322 West 48th Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY, 10036, phone: 212-245-3999.
Still to come, says Wendy: "A Players' Residence, so they can leave those awful, broken-down rent-controlled apartments they've had for 40 years (like a fifth-floor walkup after having a hip replacement or emphysema). They wouldn't be isolated, they'd live in and around the music, and watch over each other."
Or, in an emergency, call Wendy.
This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff