Jazz Condition -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By KEN FRANCKLING, Music Feature Writer  |  Oct. 16, 2001 at 12:04 AM
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On a sunny autumn in New York afternoon, Wendy Oxenhorn has good news for a California jazz musician who has returned her telephone call. She will write him a check to cover an overdue mortgage payment so he won't risk losing his house.

"This is no handout," Oxenhorn assures the musician from her small office in the back of the Musicians Union Local 802 hall in Manhattan. "This is just what you should have gotten a long time ago from selling your CDs."

Most jazz musicians have lived close to the edge money-wise throughout their careers, some often going without health insurance. And the economic uncertainty and downright downturn since the terrorist attack on America on 9/11 hasn't helped.

Many players couldn't get to gigs that were scheduled in other cities. Some found their gigs were canceled altogether -- or that they had to work for less pay -- since there were fewer paying patrons. "It has really put musicians in a very bad way," Oxenhorn said.

And it has made Oxenhorn's phone ring even more at the Jazz Foundation of America, where she is executive director 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.

The fund gained visibility in 1993 after trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's death from pancreatic cancer. During his final weeks at Englewood (N.J.) Hospital and Medical Center, Gillespie made two requests: that the hospital name a memorial program after him and that it help his fellow musicians.

The hospital opened the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute. And within a year of his death, the foundation worked out a joint venture providing free care and hospitalization for ailing musicians.

In general, the emergency fund helps musicians who are at least 50 and have been in the business at least 10 years. The needs vary from case to case and are handled confidentially. Help may be a rent payment or intervention to halt an eviction, or keeping the lights on.

One musician, now in his 80s, had worked with Louis Armstrong in his prime. When Oxenhorn was referred to him, she found he hadn't paid rent in eight months and hadn't been eating right. She took him to a dentist for neglected dental work. She then arranged for daily Meals on Wheels visits.

The most visible case of a jazz musician who was helped by the Jazz Foundation of America was singer Teri Thornton, who had a career revival after bouncing back from a bout with cancer in 1998. On referral to Englewood Hospital, Thornton received months of free care and then, through another JFA referral, a place to live at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood. Thornton died last year after a relapse of bladder cancer.

Oxenhorn, who is also a blues harmonica player, took the JFA job a year ago after an extensive career in nonprofit social services work.

One new foundation initiative is a planned partnership with Harlem Hospital to open a weekly clinic for jazz musicians who need medical care.

On Sept. 25, the JFA got its most visible boost from throughout the jazz industry with a concert at The Apollo Theatre called "A Great Night in Harlem" that was co-hosted by entertainer Bill Cosby and broadcaster Gil Noble.

With a huge turnout and significant sponsorship by record companies and other corporations, It raised about $250,000 for the foundation's efforts.

"We can run for a year on that. Not too long ago, we could have gotten by 18 months on that," Oxenhorn said, but since we have been on the map, we have had more musicians coming to us for help."

An all-star array of musicians performed that night for a crowd that filled all but 141 of the Apollo's 1,500 seats. They included Ray Barretto, Kenny Barron, Regina Carter, Ron Carter, Lou Donaldson, Jon Faddis, Tommy Flanagan, Frank Foster, Slide Hampton, Roy Haynes, Ahmad Jamal, Cassandra Wilson and Phil Woods. Trumpeter Clark Terry, who is being treated for cancer, showed up and played, as did several musicians who have benefited from JFA assistance.

All of the performers were paid honorariums -- but some signed their checks back over to the foundation. "They have worked all their lives for next to nothing. Our foundation feels very strongly that they need to be compensation for the work that they do," Oxenhorn said.

Other foundation programs include hiring older musicians to play in New York public schools and nurture the next generation of listeners.

"It's amazing to see these young kids standing up and swaying like wheat in the wind as they listen to the music," Oxenhorn said. "And to these guys, the greatest kind of work is just to play. I know what they go through if they don't get called for gigs. If you have the music in you and can't get it out, it is painful."

The challenges continue.

One younger player, an aspiring saxophonist from Japan who would practice all day and work for little more than pocket change at night, had his $5,000 Selmer Mark VI sax stolen. Oxenhorn was able to him a comparable replacement.

Oxenhorn said plans are already under way to make "A Great Night in Harlem" an annual event.

The musicians want it -- and need it, she said. Those who have succeeded want to give back to help their colleagues who have run into misfortune -- perhaps remembering their own struggles at some point.

All that mattered was the music -- and that was why they were so easy to take advantage of all those years," Oxenhorn said. "As one man told me: 'I didn't even look at what I got paid the first 10 years that I played. I would just stick it in my pocket.' That's a musician."

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