Dennis Irwin: Gone Too Soon

When tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano speaks of Dennis Irwin, it’s soon apparent that their 35-year bond was, and is, about much more than the music they played. “Dennis and I came together from the first notes we ever played together until the last notes. We came together in a real beautiful way because we were coming from the same places.” In early November, Lovano completed a series of dates throughout Asia, New Zealand and Australia. Many of the places he and Irwin had traveled together, creating and recreating the chemistry they shared, often with guitarist John Scofield. They had met in 1973, brand new to the New York jazz community, and quickly became immersed in the music. Lovano played with Woody Herman, and Art Blakey drafted Irwin on bass for the Jazz Messengers. Later, Irwin would play in Lovano’s first quartet and on his first record as a leader, Tones, Shapes and Colors, released on Soul Note Records in 1985.

Away from the music, Lovano learned about Irwin’s eclectic thirst. “Dennis was a real studied cat about people. He loved Oriental art and cultures and thrived on it. When we traveled through the Middle East together he knew all things about Oriental carpets, and we actually were in Istanbul a few times and we bought Kilim carpets and Dennis had books on carpets and knew everything about the history of how these people grew. He was an amazing cat.”

Irwin also had a Pied Piper effect with souls he’d encounter, easily bonding with the folks around him. “He would play on the street with people in New York. Dennis would be walking with his bass; he’d take his bass out and play with them. He might have just played a concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center or somewhere and see someone in the subway, and he’d take his bass out and play.”

But in November 2007, Irwin was showing subtle signs of the disease that would silence him. While he and Lovano were en route to Brazil, Irwin had to be pushed through airports in wheelchairs. “The trip to Brazil is a long flight and he couldn’t sit there. When we came back he played some gigs with Matt Wilson’s band. Those might have been the last couple of gigs he played until he was laid up enough to go to the doctor.”

Without medical insurance and hobbled by back pain, Irwin approached the Jazz Foundation of America for help in December 2007. It was too late. “The music is dying sooner than it has to,” said Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit. “When people don’t have insurance they don’t get tested for things. He came to us complaining of back pain.” Two days later through the grace of Englewood Hospital, he got every test under the sun and found out he was riddled with fourth-stage cancer. He died within three months. Irwin was 56.

Tragedy often spurs calls to act, and in the aftermath of Irwin’s death there is a sense of urgency among many in the jazz community to get artists medical insurance. The Jazz Foundation offers musicians a broad safety net, often attending to housing, medical care and replacement instruments for artists victimized by fire or floods. Oxenhorn has been tireless in her efforts to get musicians the help they need. She was touched by Irwin’s rapid decline: “He was crumpled; the pain was enormous. He was completely a prisoner in his body by the end.”

Lovano is confident that his health-conscious friend would have sought preventive care if he were insured. “If he would have had healthcare, he would have gotten checked out sooner,” Lovano said. “Dennis was a healthy guy; he was into cleansing and chlorophyll and wheat grass, and talked about it a lot.”

The business of jazz can be as improvisational as its performance. Most artists are considered independent contractors with no fixed place of employment. Some may work a festival one week, play a few dates on the road the next, perhaps a recording date after that. But even in the best circumstances, with a working artist keeping a full schedule, there isn’t a vehicle available to pay into a system that would give artists like Irwin access to retirement and health benefits.

So until there’s a solution for jazz and blues artists, from the government or private sector, the artists did what they do best. In the final weeks of Irwin’s life, benefit concerts were held at the Village Vanguard and Smalls in New York. Lovano, Scofield and Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis pushed a third benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Dennis Irwin had a status in the music community, which far exceeded his fame outside it,” said the center’s Executive Director Adrian Ellis, explaining in part why the organization backed the benefit. “As a musician and a human being he engendered immense affection.”

The concert was set for 7:30 p.m. on March 10; Irwin passed at four that afternoon of liver failure brought on by cancer. Upon hearing the news, Oxenhorn phoned Michael Pietrowicz, vice president for planning and program development at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center in Englewood, N.J. She said, “For people who don’t have insurance, they don’t do health screenings. They can’t afford it.” Raising her voice as if reliving the moment, she asked, “Is it possible for us to not have this happen again where someone is at fourth-stage cancer, and we could just do pre-screening?”

Irwin’s concert raised about $22,000 after expenses, and with a nod from Jazz at Lincoln Center the proceeds were directed to Englewood to cover a battery of free screenings, from cancer detection to assessing cardiac health. Additionally, Jazz at Lincoln Center has added a special concert to its annual schedule titled “Playing Our Part.” Proceeds will fill the coffers of the newly created Dennis Irwin Fund that will pay for the screenings. Oxenhorn said Jazz at Lincoln Center hopes to raise $50,000 a year for the effort.

On a particularly bright fall afternoon, sunlight floods the atrium of Englewood Hospital. Guitarist Roni Ben-Hur plops down on one of the overstuffed sofas to chat with folks who’ve stopped by to hear his trio play. For the past several years jazz has filled the atrium on most days from a section of the room dubbed “Earl’s Corner,” named after bassist Earl May, who played there until his death last January. The musicians volunteer their talent to draw attention to their plight and show appreciation for Englewood.

Over the last 14 years, Englewood has seen more than 1,000 artists and given some $5 million in free medical care. “It’s really overwhelming to see the support that the hospital is giving musicians,” Ben-Hur said. “The safety net that jazz musicians have is always very flimsy.” He recalled a story by the late bassist Walter Booker, who fell and broke his collarbone while inside his apartment. “He was sitting down and the phone rang and it was Wendy Oxenhorn from the Jazz Foundation, just to ask him how he’s doing, because she knew he wasn’t doing well.” Oxenhorn sent a car for Booker and made sure he was treated.

Ben-Hur recorded a CD with fellow guitarist Gene Bertoncini titled Smile that was showcased at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in early November. Sales from Smile will benefit the Jazz Foundation and its collaboration with Englewood. “We felt that through music, through the release of the CD, you can get that publicity and every time the CD is reviewed and played and purchased, this comes to mind,” he said.

Englewood’s commitment to jazz and blues artists is extraordinary at a time when healthcare systems are under pressure from cuts in reimbursement rates from public and private insurers and the masses of uninsured they treat. Dizzy Gillespie, who was treated at Englewood during his battle with cancer, urged the hospital’s support for the jazz community. Medical Director Dr. Frank Forte recalled the day hospital administrators asked Gillespie if there was anything he could do for Englewood.

“He said, ‘Well, I haven’t got anything much to give you, but you can use my name. But there is one thing I ask in return. I have been a very fortunate man, let’s face it. All my colleagues have not been so fortunate and some of them have always lived in hard times. And I want you to do something for them.’” Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer in 1993.

Since that time, Forte has developed a team of 50 doctors who see musicians for free. “Some of them I just take care of myself,” said Forte, an oncologist and jazz guitarist. “One guy comes to me and says, ‘My arm hurts.’ I said, ‘Put the guitar on the other knee,’ solved his problem. And he was having serious trouble.” While treating Gillespie, Forte developed an appreciation for jazz artists. “I like to do things that make me feel good. These are people that I really relate to. I haven’t met any bad people in the music business: Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, Kenny Burrell, all good people.”

While care at Englewood is free to musicians, it comes with a price. According to Pietrowicz, the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund usually takes in between $10,000 to $15,000 a year, but the hospital’s costs range between $250,000 to $500,000. “We need to get into that range of funding,” said Pietrowicz, who also serves as treasurer of the Jazz Foundation. “There is no other hospital in the country that does what we do.”

The side effect of a gig-to-gig work-life is that cash flow can be uncertain and in bad times unavailable. It’s what gives many jazz and blues artists pause when considering monthly premiums for health insurance. For instance, insurer United Healthcare, which covers over 3.4 million people in New York, charges independent contractors $400 to $600 a month for coverage—a hefty fee, especially in a teetering economy. But health insurance is more than access to medical care; it’s the best defense against financial ruin. A 2005 Harvard University study found that health-related expenses drove about half of all personal bankruptcies nationwide. The Jazz Foundation-Englewood support network is posting double duty by protecting the financial and medical health of artists.

Howard Johnson, who has shared the stage with Gillespie and Charles Mingus, had a brush with prostate cancer in 1999. Following Dr. Forte’s diagnosis, the 67-year-old horn player was given radiation seed implantation and the issue was resolved. But a year later, after Johnson complained of difficulty swallowing, further inquiry found a cancerous lesion in his esophagus. While the prostate treatments were performed on an outpatient basis, removing the lesion was major surgery.

“They took away everything and they feel successful if they can get you a rating of ‘no evidence of disease.’ But in my case they pronounced a cure,” said Johnson, who at the time didn’t have coverage, but has since purchased insurance. “I really didn’t know what esophageal cancer was until I got out of the hospital and went to an online support group and realized I got off easy. Some people have it really bad with that. … They live with a lot of pain and discomfort and every nine to 14 months or so people would die, and I just realized how lucky I was.”

Johnson was also lucky on the financial end. Throughout the entire process, from tests to treatment to surgery, no money changed hands. “If I had to go through all that and had the bills, I wouldn’t be in the place that I am now,” he said. “It sure did help me to look at that whole thing differently and get my life to a place where I really could take care of my medical coverage.”

Drummer Rudy Walker had been playing through pain most of his life. Now 61, he’s had rheumatoid arthritis since his left hip had a run-in with a Cadillac as a child. The accident left him prone to painful flare-ups. “The pain was so great that the weight of a bed sheet hurt,” he said. “It’s 10 times worse than a toothache.” Barely able to stand during a visit to Dr. Forte in 1994, he was sent to an orthopedist and was given a new hip. Today he is pain-free. At the time of his procedure Walker didn’t have health insurance and said the uneven tempo of his earnings made it difficult for him to buy coverage. “The pace of my income is so ridiculously sporadic,” he said. “Most jazz musicians don’t make six-figure incomes. I know a lot of guys who are married and they are on their wife’s plan.”

Patients without coverage are hesitant to use free clinics in part over fear of poor treatment and to evade being looked down upon. Walker is effusive about the care at Englewood. “I just didn’t get a hip surgery; they repaired a hernia. I tore my meniscus in my left knee and the same doctor who replaced my hip fixed my knee. They did a biopsy back in August to make sure I didn’t have cancer … so I’m getting care.” And just as important, Walker was treated with dignity. “I’ve been treated with respect, the same I’m sure Dizzy got when he was there. It’s incredible and I’m sure that is done with the utmost intent.”

Englewood’s good deeds caught the attention of writer Tom Dwyer and Chuck Fishbein, creative director of Crazy Duck Productions, based in Weehawken, N.J., and Jersey City, just outside Manhattan. The outfit is making a documentary about the hospital and its mission to treat musicians. The company’s also produced a film for Blue Note Records, Perfect Takes, that chronicles legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s work on remastering classic albums.

Fishbein said he was struck by the institution’s commitment to jazz by keeping its artists healthy. “We were saying, ‘Look at these doctors; they’re doing a great thing.’ But they all said it’s the hospital that’s giving its time. The nurses are still being paid, the tests still have to be run and paid for. And you can’t do this half-assed and say, ‘I’ll give this to you for free so we’re only going to give you the minimum of tests.’ One doctor put it this way: ‘We don’t know if they are paying or not.’ That’s the thing that impressed me the most, these doctors were just like, more people should be doing this.”

PBS and HBO have shown interest, said Fishbein, who expects to complete the project this year. He said Irwin’s saga has been integrated into the narrative and the film is being made with the hope that more people will know about Englewood and replicate the model in other cities.

There are other efforts to help uninsured jazz and blues artists, but they are less extensive than what’s happening with the Jazz Foundation and Englewood.

For the past four years, Wendy Simon Sinkler, a jazz vocalist and public school music teacher, has run Jazz Bridge of Philadelphia with Suzanne Cloud, who is also a vocalist and editor. “Our goal isn’t to promote the art of jazz,” said Sinkler, who is president and co-founded the organization with Cloud. “It’s to keep the musicians alive and by doing that the art of jazz is preserved.” The non-profit helps career musicians get access to doctors through the Greater Philadelphia Health Action Network, which sees patients on a sliding fee scale. Jazz Bridge hasn’t been able to secure a relationship with a hospital, but would like to soon. The organization worked out a deal for eye exams and glasses for $50, and dental care through the Health Action Network and the University of Pennsylvania dental clinic.

The MusiCares Foundation, a program of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, provides assistance to all musicians no matter what style they claim. In addition to sponsoring mammograms and flu shots in various cities for low or no cost, the organization has started to dispatch mobile dental clinics for cleanings and fillings. “Many artists haven’t seen a dentist for quite some time. They can’t afford health insurance, much less dental insurance,” said Dee Dee Acquisto, MusiCares senior director of health and human services. So far, the mobile units have visited New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, Seattle, Memphis, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore.

Over the past year, Local 802 of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York has been in a tussle with jazz clubs over how to fund pension and health benefits for the musicians. The union, which represents some 9,000 musicians throughout the New York metro area, fought to relieve clubs from paying a 5 percent sales tax on tickets so the funds could be used to cover benefits. But once the tax was waived the money didn’t materialize.

Bill Dennison, recording vice president of 802, described talks with club owners as constructive, but said owners view musicians as independent contractors and fear channeling funds to benefits would alter their status and make them employees. That, he said, would further obligate them for statutory benefits like unemployment insurance. “So we are trying to figure out a way to make this possible to have a collective bargaining relationship with some entity that allows these contributions to be made,” Dennison said.

Spike Wilner, one of the owners of Smalls in the West Village, said the club has taken a grassroots approach to helping musicians. A number of artists—Frank Hewitt, Tommy Turrentine and Bubba Brooks among them—lived and played at the club in their final days. As a pianist himself, Wilner said he wants to get musicians help, but views the strategy laid out by Dennison as impractical. “When you have a situation where a musician comes in and plays two sets once every two months, then it makes it difficult for the club to offer anything other than modest compensation for their performance,” he said.

Wilner said jazz clubs can’t be seen as the employer in the same way Broadway is for musicians who play a regular workweek. He praises efforts by the Jazz Foundation and would support doing regular benefits to ensure it’s properly funded. “I’ve seen real results from Wendy’s work. I’ve seen musicians benefit directly. I’ve seen them go to hospitals. I’ve seen them get recovery. I’ve seen them get their rent paid—that’s real help. I don’t see paying into a pension plan.”

But trumpeter Jimmy Owens, a founding member of the Jazz Foundation and a member of 802’s jazz advisory committee, rejects the notion that musicians aren’t employees when they play in clubs. “There is a program we are trying to put into existence where the clubs don’t have to come up with any extra money. The (voided) tax will pay the pension and health benefits for the musicians who work there. And clubs are hemming and hawing and not paying in.”

Originally published in January/February 2009

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