Another Great Night in Harlem


Merle Haggard is hardly played anymore on commercial country music stations because his writing and singing come too deeply out of the roots of real life, including his own. He and his combo love to play jazz, depending on where Haggard is booked. We were talking once about the power of music, and Merle Haggard said, “When I’m very down, way down, only music can bring me up.”

Years ago, John Coltrane was telling me what the music he listened to did for him. “It gives you a lift up,” he said. For me too. When I’m burnt out, Armstrong, Mingus, Jimmy Rushing get the life force going again. It started when I was 11, growing up in the most anti-Semitic city in the country, Boston, where a Jewish boy, walking alone at night in his own neighborhood, might well have gotten a lasting reminder of why he was thought to be an accomplice in the killing of Christ. As an outsider, jazz gave me a place to belong.

Eight years later, I started playing jazz regularly on a radio station, and writing about the music for jazz magazines, and beyond. Ever since, I’ve been trying to pay part of my lifelong debt to these resounding musicians.

That’s why I write about the Jazz Foundation of America, which exists because, as I wrote in the liner notes to last year’s benefit concert at the Apollo, A Great Night in Harlem (Concord Records/Playboy Jazz):

“Jazz musicians do not get medical insurance. Nor do they receive pensions. Therefore, when they’re no longer working regularly because of illness or because they’re out of fashion, some become homeless or are threatened with eviction. Others require medical services, including surgery, but cannot afford care that can be lifesaving.”

Wendy Oxenhorn, the foundation’s executive director—the most determined, resilient, and selfless person I have ever known—writes in the current Jazz Foundation newsletter of one of the hundreds of musicians the foundation restores to dignity. “These are not handouts,” she has emphasized to me. “It’s a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had.”

She tells about a musician in his sixties “who was living in his car after being evicted. He could not afford his rent after suffering from double pneumonia. Within one week after being released from the hospital, he got a job working in the frozen-food section of a supermarket. His take-home pay was only $170 each week—not enough for afford deposit for a room.

“The Jazz Foundation secured a room for him and paid his storage fees in order [for him] to get his instrument and other possessions. We are happy to report that he has been busy working after hours in the studio on a new CD. He is also creating a documentary on his famous musical family. He is back and gigging again.”

For musicians who can’t afford medical care, including surgery, the Jazz Foundation refers them to Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey. When Dizzy Gillespie was dying of cancer there, he urged his physician, Francis Forte (hematologist, oncologist, and guitarist), to find a way to take care of musicians who don’t have the resources he had.

Now there is the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund at Englewood Hospital, and a panel of physicians, including Dr. Forte, provides free, complete medical care, including surgeries, cancer treatment, tests, and anything else they need. For information on how to contribute to Dizzy’s gift for life, the number of the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund is 201-894-3497.

On Thursday, October 16, at the Apollo Theater, 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass boulevards (Seventh and Eighth avenues), where so much jazz history has taken place, there will be another historic concert to support the Jazz Foundation of America’s Musicians’ Emergency Fund. Among the jazz masters onstage: Jimmy Heath’s All Star Big Band; Branford Marsalis; a tribute to Nina Simone (introduced by her daughter) with Cassandra Wilson and Cyndi Lauper; Jon Faddis, Frank Wess, Charles Davis; and Gil Noble, whose Sunday hour on Channel 7, Like It Is, has had some remarkable inside-jazz interviews and dialogues on crucial civil and human rights issues that no other station produces.

For tickets to “A Great Night in Harlem” at the Apollo on October 16, you can call the Jazz Foundation (212-245-3999), the Apollo box office (212-531-5305), or Ticketmaster (212-307-7171).

Another story of a life restored: A 73-year-old jazzman had sold his bass to pay the rent. “When we met him,” Wendy Oxenhorn says, “he was in the middle of battling his landlord, who was trying to get him out of a rent-controlled lease. For the last 30 years, the landlord neglected repairs, leaving the apartment uninhabitable, especially with the musician’s crippled condition [because of polio]. He never forced the repairs because he was afraid he would lose his apartment.

“A pro bono attorney was able not only to renew his lease, but [get] a settlement, with which we hired a team to do the renovations at minimal cost. The bathroom now has walls instead of soft plastic curtains nailed around the shower. Other repairs include fixing the gaping holes in the floors and insuring that the electricity is safe.

“A Jazz Foundation staffer, Lily Morton, learned about the musician’s cat, Sam, who died two years ago. This cat was his only companion because he has been homebound for years. Lily brought him a cat that looks just like Sam. The musician is another man. He talks faster, is full of fire, and has wonderful new stories to tell about Sam Jr. This is why we need you to help the Jazz Foundation.”

Wendy and her equally committed colleague Lauren Roberts are working on a plan for a “Players Residence,” a home for jazz musicians who need a home, with free meals at lunch in a community room where they’d no longer be in solitude, and there’d be exceptionally reasonable rents. She also foresees a “Gig Referral Office” there, where people could call and hire some of the jazz players among their peers for events. And there would be a “Jam Room” for residents and guests to do just that.

I wish the magisterial tenor saxophonist Ben Webster were still around for me to thank, because, speaking for myself, he also gave me, when I was young, a credo I’ve tried to live by ever since. He told me, “When the rhythm section isn’t making it, go for yourself!” But there are times when there is no rhythm section at all for musicians who have given their lives to jazz, and that’s when the Jazz Foundation gets the beat, the groove, going again, in those musicians’ lives.