October 2008 By Nat Hentoff
Jazz’s First Lady of Charity
When Phoebe Jacobs, longtime friend and associate of Louis Armstrong, says, “Don’t let anyone tell you Louis is dead because he’s not,” she’s not talking only about the continuing presence of his music all around the world. As the central force of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Phoebe keeps providing grants to a range of projects fulfilling Louis’ wish “to give back to people some of the goodness I’ve had from them.” Particularly notable in its worldwide influence is the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, based throughout New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, from the intensive care unit to the treatment of children and adults with asthma and pulmonary disease.
And in June this year, the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine presented at Beth Israel the First International Musical Therapy and Trauma symposium, attended by therapists from across this country, South Africa, Ireland, et al. Dr. Joanne Loewy, director of this Armstrong Center, has also lectured on the findings of the music therapy part of Louis’ living legacy in European hospitals.
Recently I learned that another jazz legend with a big heart and “big ears”—as she challengingly demonstrated by improvising with musicians of all styles—also lives on, through the many lives regenerated by the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Like Louis, Ella wanted to enrich people’s lives with more than her music. The Foundation’s executive director, Fran Morris Rosman, tells me that the implementations of Ella’s wish began with the fact that her personal attorney, beginning in the 1980s, was Richard Rosman, Fran’s husband.
“When Ella passed,” Fran says, “Richard needed an archivist and I’m the only archivist he knows.”
It would take far more space than this column to list all the organizations that keep swinging because of Ella. On the list is one of her favorites, the American Heart Association.
And one of my favorites is the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation’s A Book Just for Me, which puts books into the homes and hands of disadvantaged children. Among its eight divisions is Getting Ready for School, through which “children participating in free school-clothing programs, and in tutoring programs for the homeless, receive a book in addition to their clothes and school supplies.”
Ella wanted to foster a love of reading, Fran adds, citing another part in which children and their families in family service center programs get books to read together because, she notes, “Studies have shown that reading together helps build stronger families.” And kids’ confidence in school.
Also, Ella’s foundation, funded by her royalties and investments, provides grants to “numerous organizations that provide free or low-cost healthcare to those who have no healthcare coverage, as well as providing funding for organizations that provide shelter and food for those in need.”
On Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, where many world-class jazz musicians got their seasoning, there is A Place Called Home, emphasizing after-school academic enrichment. That’s on Ella’s list, as is—in the same city—People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).
The Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, an organization I rely on to trace that inextinguishable prejudice, antiw- Semitism, in all corners of the world, also benefits from Ella’s long reach.
Having interviewed Ella at a Boston club very long ago, I was struck by both her spontaneous gentleness and firm independence. At the time, she was jousting with her then-record label, Decca, for not allowing her to record the kinds of songs she wanted to sing. (Norman Granz was not yet her career enabler, driven by his enormous respect for and appreciation of her stature.)
The Ella I remember from that and other contacts is now a natural, empathic supporter of the Center for the Partially Sighted in Los Angeles and the residential Children of the Night in Van Nuys that provides services for disadvantaged youth. In the vision context, on Ella’s list is Guide Dogs of America in the San Fernando Valley.
Ella’s Foundation makes a point of remembering the birthdays of the children with which it is involved. As Fran Morris Rosman explains, one of its projects is Birthday Books, and this is how it works:
“The Centers, clinics and non-profit organizations advise us as to the number of children and, about once or twice a year, we send a large shipment of books to the centers, complete with colorful book labels to be pasted inside each book. The labels say, ‘Happy Birthday to you from the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation.’ On each child’s birthday, the Center staff presents a book to the birthday child.”
The younger kids, and not only them, might someday also find somewhere a recording of Ella’s first big hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” I played it often long after I was a kid to relive the sheer cheerfulness of first hearing it with Chick Webb’s band joining the joy.
Because of the economics of the jazz life, not even internationally known performers ever amassed enough bread to start and sustain a foundation. But if there are others in addition to those through which Louis and Ella keep enhancing all kinds of people’s lives, please let me know c/o JazzTimes.
The Ella Fitzgerald Foundation can be reached at:
P.O. Box 1587, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Originally published in October 2008