The Beating Heart of Jazz

Art Blakey: 'You don't have to be a musician to understand jazz. Just be able to feel.'

The Bush administration miserably failed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the Jazz Foundation of New York hasn't failed thousands of New Orleans musicians. On March 4, in recognition of how the foundation's Wendy Oxenhorn and other saints came marching in, Jazz at Lincoln Center awarded the organization a grant from its High Ground Hurricane Relief Fund: "Since Katrina alone, the Jazz Foundation assisted over 3,500 emergency [New Orleans] cases and has created employment for over 1,000 musicians in crisis with the Agnes Varis/Jazz in the Schools program."

Said Wendy, in gratitude: "We will be able to keep our beloved New Orleans musicians working, bringing free concerts to thousands of public-school children and hundreds of elderly residents in nursing homes throughout the New Orleans area. This allows the musicians to keep their dignity, heritage, music, and spirits alive."

Also, Adrian Ellis, JALC's new energizing executive director, has committed to an annual benefit concert for the Jazz Foundation.

Meanwhile, back at the foundation's headquarters in New York, Wendy told of one of the many cases by which she and the foundation are regularly challenged. (Names are often omitted in the interest of privacy.) "Another great pianist," said Wendy, "who is only in her seventies, had just lost her husband this year. A few years ago, a car accident destroyed her face on one side."

New Jersey's Englewood Hospital, a pro bono Jazz Foundation partner in providing vital health services for musicians, "did all the reconstructive surgery for free. She spoke about how, when her husband was sick and dying, the foundation paid the rent for months to keep them from eviction and homelessness. After he died, our Agnes Varis/Jazz in the Schools [program] kept her busy, allowed her to pay the rent—and now she's doing so well, she's getting gigs all over the place. She tells me she feels 'life is beginning again!' "

Another story that Wendy has to tell among so many reminds me of a continually inspiring national disability-rights organization, Not Dead Yet, that I've been writing about for years. They never give up. Neither has a New Orleans musician, Steven Foster, and his son Kwame, who was born with muscular dystrophy and has been on a life-support machine for the last 18 years.

"Steve and his wife," said Wendy, "sent Kwame—now in his twenties and about three and a half feet in length—to regular schools and even to college, with all his challenges and with his life-support equipment."

His father, a clarinetist and alto saxophonist, was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and wound up in Tennessee, having lost his home and music school. Through its Jazz in the Schools program, the foundation has been helping to support Steve and his family, as well as footing Kwame's considerable expenses.

Wendy continued: "When the recent tornado knocked out electricity for 12 hours around the state, Kwame's respirator went down! His parents realized that to keep their son alive, they needed a generator in the house. We at the foundation immediately bought him one for $1,200. They are all breathing easy now."

That's not all about Kwame. This former A student at Southern University started his own foundation in 1991 to help, he said, "other young people with challenges to have hope and live a fulfilling life."

Kwame is also a flutist and often goes on gigs with his father and his mother (a bassist), bringing jazz to people in nursing homes and children in schools.

The president of the Jazz Foundation, Jarrett Lilien, a major planner and funder of a number of its programs, said recently: "Everyone is saying how times are getting tougher, and people are scared of what's happening out there. But imagine what it's like for the folks on the bottom of the pyramid. . . . They are in more danger than any of us, and this is a time when musicians need us at the Jazz Foundation more than ever."

This year's celebration—of what I call the spirit of Kwame—lights up the Apollo (253 West 125th Street, between Seventh and Eighth avenues) on Thursday, May 29, at 8 p.m., with Bill Cosby and Danny Glover hosting an evening filled with the joys and surprises of jazz. (For tickets, call 212-245-3999, ext. 28, or visit the foundation's website at jazzfoundation.org.)

Besides dealing with eviction notices, medical crises, and other acute needs, Wendy and the others involved in taking the Jazz Foundation to the next level are focusing, she noted, "on getting an endowment started so we can finally begin to search longer-term goals as the need for health insurance for musicians, the idea of online management and booking services, [getting them] income, and [the building of] the Players' Residence, so they can live independently and not have to go to nursing homes."

So far, "hundreds of lives have been changed, and will be—not just in crisis, as now, but with future programs to ensure that the ones who come later will never have to be in the situation that [others] now find themselves in today," she said.

Over the years, covering many different kinds of stories and people, I'm often unexpectedly told—by court bailiffs, surgeons, painters, architects, professional basketball players, et al.—how jazz became an essential part of their lives. Recently, I interviewed an official of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) about its jazz program and exchanged stories with him about how, at times of deep loss, this music has had the power to bring us back among the truly living, reminding us how much fun there is in being swept into a swinging groove.

John Coltrane once said that the meaning of jazz "is the whole question of life itself"—not just for the players, but also for those of us who can't live without it. Art Blakey, who was impelled to preach the gospel of jazz (and not only on drums), used to say: "You don't have to be a musician to understand jazz. All you have to do is be able to feel."

I keep writing about the Jazz Foundation to pay a small part of my debt to these musicians, who for so long have kept showing me how deeply and immediately I can feel. When I was a kid, sneaking into clubs before I was old enough to be admitted, these players seemed to be larger than I thought life could possibly be. Without them, my own would have been a lot grayer.

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