Keeping Jazz Makers Alive


Years ago, without a steady gig or paycheck and a first child on the way, I was anxiously freelancing and began to empathize with the common lot of many musicians who existed from gig to gig with no medical insurance. I asked a former sideman who had played with several renowned jazz leaders, but was then scuffling: “How do you make a living?”

He shrugged: “I wait for the phone to ring.”

I became aware that there were jazz players—some internationally known and most in jazz discographies—who had been evicted for nonpayment of rent at times, and others—too sick to work and without medical care—winding up in emergency rooms. A one-time piano phenomenon whom I’d interviewed, Phineas Newborn, ended up in a pauper’s grave.

But at last, in 1989, a group of musicians—among them trumpeter Jimmy Owens and bassist Jamil Nasser, along with the late Herb Storfer, former jazz archivist at the Schomburg Library—started the Jazz Foundation of America in New York.

They began to bring new life and even gigs to forlorn survivors. As one example, the Jazz Foundation now says: “Not one musician in eight years has ever gone homeless who came to us before being evicted.”

Soon after the foundation hit its groove, Wendy Oxenhorn became its executive director. Tireless and infinitely resourceful, she is the foundation’s rhythm section, coordinating its invaluable staff, board, and sponsors to meet continuous musicians’ needs—and conquering crises no matter what the odds.

When Wendy started working there eight years ago, the foundation had $7,000 in the bank and was helping about 35 musicians a year. Now, she and her colleagues sometimes deal with 60 cases a week.

On this past April 18, she told me and others on her list of supporters: “Today alone, we saved three musicians from homelessness. We got heart medication for one of the all-time greats who didn’t have the $73 to get it himself.

“And we made sure that four elderly musicians will eat this weekend, have gigs next week so they can eat next week. We also took care of one of the living legends who is in his late eighties, lost his manager, lost his wife, and has been trying to take care of business on his own now without anyone to help. As of this afternoon, I am introducing a wonderful volunteer to him who will help him a few times a week to make his gigs, get the itinerary each week, and help him get on planes to Japan and Europe and make sure he takes his medicine.”

Earlier that month, Wendy told of the “85-year-old pianist who played with Lionel Hampton’s band for 18 years, and we learned that the big band’s manager back then took off with all their pension money, leaving nothing for their old age. After working every night for years on the road, at the age of 78, he found himself evicted and homeless.

“The Jazz Foundation got him into an apartment again. He is no longer sleeping on his sister’s couch. And now he is part of our Agnes Varis/Jazz in the Schools Program.” (Dr. Varis, head of AgVar Chemicals—called “Saint Agnes” by Wendy—is a major benefactor of the foundation.)

“This pianist had been missing so many teeth for so long, you’d never see him smiling. But now he’s got his gorgeous smile again, thanks to our dentists. He’s now gigging at restaurants, making $60 for four hours straight, but he told me that if it weren’t for Jazz in the Schools, he’d never be able to make his rent.”

There’s much more that the Jazz Foundation is planning for the years ahead, including—as Wendy often cites—a Player’s Residence, with living and rehearsal space, “before the great elders are gone.” But more bread—to use a jazz term—is required for the present and future.

A major part of the foundation’s income comes from its annual “A Great Night in Harlem” concert at the Apollo Theater. The seventh jazz-band ball, on Thursday, May 29, at 8 p.m., will be hosted by Bill Cosby and Danny Glover.

Among those celebrating the life force of this music in what Wendy calls “a night of living history” will be jazz masters Randy Weston, Dave Brubeck, Frank Wess, Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Dr. Michael White and his Liberty Jazz Band from New Orleans, Hank Jones (sharing his 90th birthday party with Norah Jones), Frank Foster and his Loud Minority Big Band, electric guitarist Leon Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix’s brother), and, as usual, some surprises.

The Apollo, a shrine of jazz history and a frequent destination for tourists from around the world, is at 253 West 125th Street (between Seventh and Eighth avenues). Tickets, which range from $50 to $1,500, can be bought by calling 212-245-3999, ext. 28. If you have a lot of bread, and jazz has been a vital part of your life, you can make an online donation to the foundation (

An especially remarkable achievement by the foundation was set in motion by Dizzy Gillespie as he was dying at New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital & Medical Center. Dizzy, who had the most generous spirit of anyone I’ve ever known, said to Dr. Frank Forte, his oncologist and hematologist (and a guitarist by night): “I want you to take care of the musicians who haven’t been as fortunate as I’ve been.”

The result: For 14 years, Englewood Hospital & Medical Center, in concert with the Jazz Foundation, has provided surgeries and specialists, medical care, diagnostics, and lab work—without charge—for more than 1,000 uninsured musicians, literally keeping hundreds of jazz and blues artists alive.

Meanwhile, the foundation keeps swinging into action. In March, when a giant construction crane collapsed, one of the residents evacuated from her apartment next to the crushed four-story brick building was 92-year-old organist Jane Jarvis, known to Mets fans for her rousing “Mexican Hat Dance” at Shea Stadium—and to jazz listeners for her work with Clark Terry, Benny Powell, Lionel Hampton, and Roy Eldridge.

Rushed out of her apartment in just her pajamas and a fur coat, bewildered and confused as “my world fell around me,” Jane was taken into the care of the Red Cross. Then, Wendy—who at that point was in New Orleans caring for musicians still displaced by Hurricane Katrina—received a call from Benny Powell and studio musician Ann Ruckert. Wendy got Jane into a hotel—paid for by the Jazz Foundation—until she could get back to her apartment and be seen to by a foundation social worker.

E-mailing her list of supporters to update us on Jane’s situation, Wendy said: “I didn’t want you to think we were slacking.”

Next week: New horizons for the Jazz Foundation.