A Great Night in Harlem


Lots of people save jazz albums. But how often do you have the chance to save a jazz musician? —a musician helped by the Jazz Foundation of America’s Musicians’ Emergency Fund

Few jazz musicians have steady gigs. As even pianist Jimmy Rowles, the master accompanist, once said to me, “I wait for the phone to ring.”

Being itinerants, most jazz players get no medical benefits, let alone pensions. Some, as they get older and fall out of fashion, wait a long time for the phone to ring.

Those who become economically rootless, live alone, and get sick can and do disappear. Pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., who came out of the Memphis jazz scene, had astonishing technique, which he used to tell passionate personal stories on his instrument. He made some well-regarded recordings, but wound up in a pauper’s grave in Memphis. No one came forward with the money to bury him.

When I was a kid, I’d see pitches in movie theaters for a home, named for Will Rogers, where ill and impoverished actors had their needs—medical and otherwise—well taken care of, and regained their lives.

After becoming part of the jazz world in the 1950s, I wondered why there was no such recuperative place for jazz musicians. Since 1989, however, the Jazz Foundation of America, through its Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund, has been paying the back rent of musicians about to be evicted; rescuing homeless musicians; connecting them with such services as Meals on Wheels; and bringing them back to health, sometimes actually saving their lives. The Jazz Foundation is at 322 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036 (212-245-5800).

A musician whose name would be familiar to record collectors of a certain age says, “They saved my life. I’m eating, I’m sleeping. I feel like a young man of 50. I even play better. Since I met the Jazz Foundation, everything’s been a whole lot better.”

Dizzy Gillespie was instrumental in expanding and strengthening the free medical services the Jazz Foundation provides. I’ve never known anyone with so generous and caring a spirit. Musicians still tell stories of his taking the time to teach them the chord changes and rhythms he kept discovering for his own music.

When Dizzy was dying of cancer at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, his physician was Dr. Frank Forte—an oncologist, hematologist, internist, and devoted jazz guitarist. “Dizzy,” Dr. Forte told me, “had a tremendous will to live, but also, as his condition worsened, he told me, with great determination, ‘I want you to take care of the musicians who haven’t been as fortunate as I have been.’ ”

There is now a Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute at Englewood Hospital, and in conjunction with the foundation’s network of pro bono physicians, jazz musicians benefit from more than $200,000 a year in donated funds for heart surgery, cancer treatment, a range of medical tests, and additional care. Also involved in this renewal of lives is Harlem Hospital.

Wendy Oxenhorn, the Jazz Foundation’s executive director, faces down threatening landlords, takes musicians to the hospital, raises funds, and has musicians as dinner guests in her home. “They know,” she says, “that if they’re hungry, they can call and come by.”

Everyone working with the Jazz Foundation—including many active musicians—joins in what Oxenhorn says about their work: “What we do is in no way a handout. It’s a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had. So many now are living alone without help or with the constant threat of homelessness or untreated illnesses.”

On Monday, September 24, the Jazz Foundation will present “A Great Night in Harlem” at the Apollo Theater, 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, at 7 p.m.

The benefit for the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund will include this partial list of musicians:

Ron Carter, Chika, George Coleman, Bob Cranshaw, Lou Donaldson, Frank Foster, Nnenna Freelon, Slide Hampton, Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, Roy Haynes, Percy Heath, Ahmad Jamal, Howard Johnson, Etta Jones, Junior Mance, Earl May, Jimmy Owens, Cecil Payne, Irene Reid, Ben Riley, Max Roach, Melvin Sparks, Clark Terry, Cassandra Wilson, and Phil Woods.

Masters of ceremonies will be Bill Cosby and Gil Noble, host of WABC-TV’s invariably illuminating Sunday television show Like It Is (noon).

Tickets are available through TicketMaster (212-307-7171) and the Apollo Theater box office (212-531-5300). Limited Golden Circle Orchestra seating is priced at $250, with additional tickets set at $100, $50, and $35.

Dr. Frank Forte has come up with a way, in addition to the benefit, to sustain funding for the foundation. “In churches,” he points out, “there’s a box, a collection box, for people in need. Why not have collection boxes in nightclubs where jazz is played? Why not in record stores? And at concerts?”

And why not have regular contributions from record companies that profit from jazz, including those labels that keep releasing reissues, on a good many of which musicians now in need of help played?

Wendy Oxenhorn recently went to see a musician living in an apartment where, she says, “the walls had holes so big they were covered with blocks of wood. Rats the size of watermelons could fit through these holes—as well as the ones in the floor.

“He had just sold his instrument because he needed the money to pay his car insurance of $200 a month. His car is his only means of freedom. Disabled, he needs the car to get his groceries. He was heartbroken to sell his instrument.

“I’m going to take care of the landlord, who wants to evict him,” Oxenhorn told me.”Then we will paint his place and fix the holes, if I have to do it myself with some volunteers.” And then she’ll go on from there.