A Jazz Bridge to Musicians in Need

Just as certain musicians—Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane—have influenced so many others, so the Jazz Foundation of America has helped spur a vital regional organization, the Philadelphia-based Jazz Bridge Project (215-517-8337; jazzbridge.org), to be of multi-dimensional help to jazz and blues musicians.

Founded almost four years ago, and reaching from Trenton (N.J.) to Wilmington (Del.) and from Reading (Pa.) to Atlantic City (N.J.), the Jazz Bridge began thanks to Wendy Simon Sinkler and Suzanne Cloud, both jazz singers. The impetus, they told me, was because “both of us had lost dear friends in the jazz community to illness, desperation and/or a lack of hope when times got difficult, as times always do in a jazz musician’s life. We just got fed up with the lack of resources for the jazz community there.

“We’ve helped musicians get medical and dental care, eye exams and legal help. We replaced drummer Billy James’ drum set when he lost everything in a fire, and bought him a new suit so he could continue playing gigs. And we’ve paid funeral costs for local, yet famous, musicians whose families could not afford to bury them.”

Crediting Wendy Oxenhorn (the ceaselessly swinging rhythm section for the Jazz Foundation of America) for having been “a great inspiration and help to us,” Sinkler and Cloud say, “Our dream is that other regions will take up the challenge to support their local musicians.” And that’s also the purpose of this column—along with hoping to encourage support for the Jazz Bridge itself.

It took them almost a year, but the Jazz Bridge is now officially nonprofit and therefore tax-deductible. Along with volunteers, who are eagerly sought by the Jazz Bridge, co-founders Cloud and Sinkler are learning, step by step, how to regenerate the lives and music of many jazz and blues improvisers left without a rhythm section:

“We network and collaborate with individuals, corporations and nonprofits who provide pro bono or low-fee services,” say Cloud and Sinkler. For example: “Philadelphia Eyeglass Labs formed a partnership with the Jazz Bridge to generously provide jazz musicians with free eye exams and low cost glasses.”

Moreover, “Mercy Hospital helped a local artist who needed emergency treatment and testing, care that would not have been available without the unique Bridge/Mercy coalition.” That coalition has broken down, however, and the Bridge hopes one of Philadelphia’s renowned hospitals will join the band.

Among future Jazz Bridge plans is setting up a “low-cost dental program, so hopefully by the next newsletter we’ll have good news, especially if we get some generous help from donations or a tender-hearted dental group.”

The July 2008 “Notes From the President,” by Sinkler, indicates the determined commitment of the evolving Bridge. The organization vitally needs more funding “as the national healthcare crisis worsens along with the economy, and many more musicians and singers seek assistance.” What follows is small in actual numbers of musicians, but consider the impact on each of them—and their music.

Writes Sinkler: “In 2006, we assisted three clients who needed emergency medical care … In 2007, we assisted 24 clients regarding medical care; emergency dental care; eye exams and free glasses; legal help concerning royalties and copyright; homelessness; emergency home repair; and property tax needs to save a family home.”

Halfway through this year, the Bridge responded to the “24 clients regarding funeral service support, medical care and surgery, dentures and bridgework, and emergency legal support.”

It’s also worth noting that after Mercy Hospital was no longer available to the Jazz Bridge, a musician requiring hospital treatment was sent—through the Jazz Foundation’s Oxenhorn—to Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in New Jersey, which for years has provided free care, including surgery, to the Foundation’s musicians.

Learning more about the Jazz Bridge, I discovered that Philadelphia might be the only city in the country with a record company, Dreambox Media/Encounter Records, that has been archiving the city’s jazz scene for more than 20 years through releases by the city’s musicians. Every city should have one, and if there are others that do, please let me know.

Cloud (a writer and editor as well as a jazz singer) and drummer Jim Miller run Dreambox, which is a co-operative. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Feb. 28, 2007, Miller, the label’s president, “funnels almost all of the profits back to the artists, who retain ownership of their own masters and publishing rights.” (Some of them have contributed part of their proceeds to the Jazz Bridge.)

Dreambox covers the jazz spectrum, including avant-garde. The label’s name came from Cloud’s research for her doctoral dissertation on jazz history at the University of Pennsylvania. In the hours of oral histories she taped, one of the musicians referred to his brain as his “dreambox.”

The Bridge’s annual calendar—with photographs of, and epigrammatic quotes from, jazzmen and -women with Philadelphia roots—is becoming a collector’s item. For May, for example, there is bassist Jymie Merritt: “Playing with someone you enjoy playing with is like an endless conversation … always something new to discuss.”

For September, drummer Mickey Roker on playing with bassist Bob Cranshaw: “There were times when the groove was just so hard that before the first tune was played, I’d be smiling. Once we locked in, it was a love affair.”

Much attention and speculation is necessarily focusing on where new audiences are coming from. But it’s also deeply important to be aware of, and support, jazz creators in your city and region. And Philadelphia’s Jazz Bridge should be a model, and an inspiration, to jazz societies throughout the country.

Originally published in November 2008

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