In Greek mythology, Atlas was the man condemned to carry the world on his back. To many aging jazz musicians, and some younger in age who find themselves in a bind, Wendy Oxenhorn is the female Atlas who tirelessly holds up their worlds.
Wendy Atlas Oxenhorn is executive director of the New York City-based Jazz Foundation of America and oversees its Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund. The foundation created the fund in 1991 to help individual musicians with medical or other problems related to indigence.
Oxenhorn, who is also a blues harmonica player, took the JFA job three years ago in a move that has extended and challenged her varied career in nonprofit social services work.
"We reached 300 musicians this year, which is amazing. The phone doesn't quit," she said. "When I first started, it was 35 a year."
Sixty of those 300 musicians were helped year this with problems involving homelessness and potential eviction, she said. "We've recruited some new doctors who give free medical care. Dr. Frank Forte and the Englewood (N.J.) Hospital and Medical Center are still doing amazing things," Oxenhorn said. "One doctor who we are honoring this year did three hip replacements -- and those are estimated at $30,000, between the hospital and his fee. It is quite incredible -- all free.
"We just found a doctor who helped with someone who had a bad infection requiring medication that was $200 a day. He got it for free. It has just been really great."
This year, a concert sponsored by a local insurance company raised enough money to hire a part-time social worker and provide enough cash for the foundation to survive through this week's major annual fundraiser. That grand event on Thursday night at the historic Apollo Theater is called "A Great Night in Harlem."
It will include performances by saxophonist Jimmy Heath's All-Star Big Band, Branford Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Abbey Lincoln, Frank Wess, Charles Davis and Stanley Jordan. There will be a tribute to late singer Nina Simone by Cassandra Wilson, Cyndi Lauper and Simone's daughter, Lisa, who has starred in the Broadway productions of "Rent" and Elton John's staging of "Aida" and sang in the acid-jazz band Liquid Soul. Scheduled celebrity hosts include Bill Cosby, Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones.
Oxenhorn said she hopes to announce on Thursday a financial services company's two-year commitment to build the first in a series of residences for musicians in need -- complete with modest rehearsal/performance space.
In general, the emergency fund helps musicians who are at least 50 and have been in the business at least 10 years. While the vast majority of cases involve metropolitan New York musicians, Oxenhorn gets calls for aid -- and helps -- musicians across the U.S. The needs vary from case to case and are handled confidentially, unless the musician decides to disclose the information.
At last year's Apollo Theater concert, trumpet great Freddie Hubbard told the audience that the foundation made mortgage payments for several months on his California home when he was unable to work while recovering from a heart ailment.
"When you don't have insurance, or only partial insurance, and one big medical thing happens, you're done. There go your savings -- if you have any to begin with," Oxenhorn said. "Most musicians don't have savings anyway. The guys at his level would, but it can be wiped out in a moment."
Oxenhorn said it takes roughly $350,000 to run the fund for a year, in addition to the donated services it is able to arrange.
"I'm just trying to build it to enough visibility that somebody will give us a corporate or personal endowment from which we can operate on its annual interest earnings," she said.
The cases in which the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund gets involved in are varied, have mixed results and sometimes hit close to home for Oxenhorn.
An 86-year-old drummer named Doc Pittman performed decades ago with Louis Armstrong. "He was the first man to let me up on a bandstand several years ago when I started playing the harmonica," Oxenhorn said. "I had no idea that years later, I'd be helping him in his later years."
When Pittman was hospitalized and died after a fall, "I had to go through his effects for three days because he had no relatives. No one," she said. "I buried him with his drumsticks.
One whom she assisted this year is singer-songwriter Jimmy Norman, who co-wrote the classic R&B song "Time is On My Side" for Irma Thomas. It became a much bigger hit for the Rolling Stones in 1967.
"He had sold his rights to the song for next to nothing -- I think it was under $200," Oxenhorn said. "He has emphysema and a heart condition. We helped clean up his apartment. We found a cassette of him and Bob Marley writing tunes that had never before been heard. He used to write with Bob Marley and helped him get established in this country. They ended up selling the cassette at Christie's (auction house). Our help also prompted him to also find some other tunes he'd written some years ago that he's forgotten about, and he's coming out with a CD. He's a magnificent singer."
For every emergency that Oxenhorn resolves, another soon surfaces and requires renewed energy.
"This is no handout," Oxenhorn tells each musician. "This is just what you should have gotten a long time ago from selling your CDs."