In New Orleans, the Saints Are Marching In Again


“The Jazz Foundation has been a lifesaver to so many musicians from New Orleans, giving them the opportunity to work and earn money with dignity. They’ve done more to help the New Orleans musicians than any other group that I know of.”

Dr. Michael White, New Orleans classic jazz clarinetist, bandleader, and educator

“It’s hard for people to imagine what it’s like to go through something like [Hurricane Katrina], and to then start over with nothing. The Jazz Foundation was there for us every time . . . The light is coming back after so much darkness I thought would never end.”

Rodney Rollins, New Orleans musician and Hurricane Katrina survivor

Years ago in New Orleans, as I was going to Preservation Hall—with music swinging into the street from every nightclub on the way—I heard, coming from the hall, that joyous high-stepping jazz anthem, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Now, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina continues to lie heavily on the city—unstable levees, broken neighborhoods, broken families, and 250,000 residents still gone. But the spirit of the city—embodied in its music, long reverberating around the world—is rising. Many of the musicians, including brass bands, are back.

Much of the credit for their determined presence, so vital to the life force of New Orleans, is due to the continuing work of the New York–based nonprofit Jazz Foundation of America. This past January 10, the International Association of Jazz Educators, the largest jazz organization in the world, for the first time included a special award in its annual conference: to the Jazz Foundation “in recognition of its incalculable efforts in support of the New Orleans and Gulf Coast musician communities following the Hurricane Katrina disaster.”

Until Katrina, the Jazz Foundation, formed in 1989 by musicians—and by lay listeners for whom jazz is an essential, regenerating part of their lives—had been known primarily for its emergency help to the sick, elderly, or out-of- fashion jazz musicians. Among them were once-active players about to be evicted from their apartments and others in acute need of medical attention, including operations—which, through the foundation, they get free from New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.

Jazz makers, except for a very few, have no medical insurance or pensions; some, cited prominently in jazz histories and discographies, have died penniless and alone. The Jazz Foundation came into being to fill a crucial need. Its dauntless executive director, Wendy Oxenhorn, is always on call, and if a musician needs a meal, she’s often the person to feed him. Recently, she rushed to a hospital in the middle of the night to look after a newly admitted 84-year-old percussionist.

Since Katrina hit, Oxenhorn says, “we’ve assisted more than 1,700 New Orleans emergency cases while still being there for some 1,300 new cases of our regular elderly musicians around the country.”

For the displaced New Orleans musicians, she distributed more than $25,000 worth of new musical instruments. And among the foundation’s key financial supporters, its president, Jarrett Lilien (his day job is head of E*Trade Financial), has, Oxenhorn adds, “made it possible for the JFA to house and relocate hundreds of New Orleans musicians and their families—saving them from homelessness and eviction in 20 states.”

Another special award from the jazz educators was given to another mainstay of the Jazz Foundation: Dr. Agnes Varis, president of Agvar Chemicals, “for providing funds for the Foundation to employ more than 700 displaced musicians in eight states.”

“Saint Agnes,” as Oxenhorn calls her, paid for free performances post-Katrina by New Orleans musicians for thousands of children as part of her customary Jazz in the Schools program around the country. (The gigs for the New Orleans players included the elderly in nursing homes as well as the kids in schools.)

To enable the foundation to bring jazz musicians back to life in this tri-state area, New Orleans, and throughout the nation, the proceeds from its annual “A Great Night in Harlem” concert at the fabled Apollo Theater are absolutely vital.

The sixth annual Harlem fest takes place on Thursday, May 17. “A Great Night in Harlem” begins at 8 p.m.; the Apollo is on 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards (Seventh and Eighth avenues). Tickets can be purchased through the Jazz Foundation office by calling 212-245-3999, extension 28.

As Oxenhorn says, “It will be a night of living history.” Among those onstage: Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band from New Orleans, Big Chief Donald Harrison and the Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess, Paul Shaffer (of The Late Show With David Letterman), Candido, Junior Mance, Ben Riley, Gary Bartz, Arturo O’Farrill, Henry Butler, Jimmy Norman—and, as happens every year, many surprises. If no one plays “When the Saints Go Marching In,” they’ll all embody the song.

The hosts are Bill Cosby, Gil Noble (of WABC-TV’s invaluable Like It Is), and Danny Glover. At a previous “Great Night in Harlem,” I asked Cosby—and I was serious—to think about running for president. As Cosby keeps proving in the public square on such essential issues as education, he is a wise and fearless leader. Rejecting my invitation, he said, “What do you want me to do—bankrupt my wife?” I wished he’d reconsider.

At this May 17 concert, Dave Brubeck will receive a lifetime achievement award. And Roy Haynes, the continually evolving master drummer who has played with most of the major entries in the Encyclopedia of Jazz, will solo. You’ll be telling your grandchildren about Haynes’s performance—and about the rest of the night of living history.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m on the board of directors of the Jazz Foundation; but because of my day job, making sense of the news, I never have time to go to any meetings. All I do for the foundation is write about it—because were it not for the creators of this music, my life would have been enormously diminished.

As Oxenhorn says of what the foundation does, “These are not handouts. It’s a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had.”

When I was in my early twenties, Duke Ellington tenor saxophonist Ben Webster gave me a lifetime credo: “If the rhythm section isn’t making it, go for yourself!” But sometimes, you need a rhythm.