Dizzy’s Life Force Goes On

Years ago, a pianist recorded with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Now, at 72, living alone, he was evicted from his apartment of nearly 40 years. He couldn’t pay the new rent. In shock, he collapsed and was hospitalized. Meanwhile, a city marshal put his instruments, belongings, sheet music, radio interviews, his life, in 60 garbage bags in the basement.

The Jazz Foundation of America’s Emergency Fund workers went through all the bags and paid for a storage room to hold them. Wendy Oxenhorn, the Foundation’s executive director, got him a keyboard so that, in the nursing home, he could be reunited with his music. He’s now in a studio apartment, in an assisted-living building in Manhattan, with his piano, which he can play whenever he feels the spirit.

I’ve written about the Jazz Foundation before (JazzTimes, March and April 1999). It has since helped many more jazz musicians, some in urgent need, and it’s now itself in need of more funds. This past June, the annual awards event of the Jazz Journalists Association was held at Birdland as a benefit for the Foundation.

Among others, I made a pitch for the Foundation, and during the exit music, several record company executives went over to Wendy Oxenhorn and pledged support. But more is needed, on a continuing basis, from others involved in jazz, including club owners—and listeners.

Present at the journalists’ awards was Dr. Frank Forte, an internist, hematologist and oncologist. He took care of Dizzy Gillespie when he was dying at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.

“Dizzy had such a will to live,” Forte told me, “all the way through. And it was not easy. He kept his wit, his humor. But he got very serious when he told me, ‘I want you to take care of the musicians who haven’t been as fortunate as I.’”

There is now a Dizzy Gillespie Institute at the hospital, where the Jazz Foundation—and its network of pro bono doctors—have given jazz musicians more than $200,000 a year in donated funds for heart surgery, cancer treatment, tests and other medical care. Harlem Hospital is also involved.

Dizzy knew that most musicians don’t get pensions or medical benefits, and they also need gigs when they’re forgotten—not only for bread but for dignity. Wendy Oxenhorn reports: “Through a grant, we recently generated approximately $50,000 worth of gigs in the public schools in the month of April, employing many of our neediest musicians.”

The Foundation often pays rents when needed, but this way, Oxenhorn continues, “they have a chance to pay their own rent and in the process, educate and introduce about 10,000 children to jazz.”

Many of these older musicians are reluctant to ask for help, so a friend calls the Foundation. One musician, nearly 80 and disabled, had been subsisting on two cans of Slim Fast a day for a year and a half. Wendy told him that Meals on Wheels could bring him hot meals every day, but he said he didn’t want anyone coming to his place. After four weeks of calls from Oxenhorn, he relented, and she soon got a message from him on her machine: “I feel like a new man, I got the life back in me again. Thank you for staying after me.” (In a recent month, Oxenhorn says, “three musicians ended up at my place for dinner because they know if they’re hungry they can call and come on by.”)

Forte has an idea to further Dizzy’s desire to bring the life back to musicians trying to keep body and soul together. “In church,” Forte told me, “there’s a box, a collection box, for people in need. Why not have collection boxes for the Jazz Foundation in nightclubs where jazz is played?” Why not at record stores? And at concerts?

“What we do at, and through, the Foundation,” Oxenhorn emphasizes, “is in no way a handout. It’s a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had. So many are now living alone without help, or with the constant threat of homelessness or untreated illnesses.”

She tells of a drummer, a diabetic, who thought he had an infected toe; but a Foundation doctor took one look and had him instantly put in a hospital where he saved the drummer’s leg from being amputated. “Without doctors,” says Oxenhorn, “he probably would have died. Now all he lost was his toe. Sometimes we get lucky.”

The Jazz Foundation of America is at 322 W. 48th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. Telephone: 212-245-3999. Toll free: 1-800-532-5267. All contributions are tax-deductible.

On September 24, at the Apollo Theater (253 W. 125th Street in Harlem) at 7 PM there will be a benefit for the Foundation with Bill Cosby as the host, and an array of musicians, including Max Roach, Phil Woods, Jimmy Owens, Cassandra Wilson, Percy Heath, Don Braden, Roy Haynes, Barry Harris and many more. George Wein and Rick White have volunteered to be the pro bono producers.

Originally published in October 2001

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