Nat Hentoff on the Jazz Foundation of America

When the jazz family is suffering

Starting as a fan, I never knew much of anything about the lives of jazz musicians off the bandstand until I got to know some of them as a reporter and critic. Having grown up during the Great Depression of the ’30s, I quickly became aware of how hard it was for so many of them to make a living.

Coming upon Jimmy Rowles when he was long between gigs, I asked him what he was going to do. “I wait for the phone to ring,” he said. And I heard of players who died desolate and broke—like pianist Wynton Kelly, the singular sideman to Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and more, who died alone at 39.

This is why I often report on the Jazz Foundation of America. Last August, Hurricane Irene hit New York, and on Aug. 26, Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn e-mailed her board and contributors. “Thanks to you all, our elder legends are taken care of,” she wrote. “I just want you to know that we were able to call so many of our great elderly legends who mostly live alone, without family and have little or no money to shop for food or expensive items like flashlights and the extras you need to prepare for a good storm.”

The reaction she got from some musicians, Wendy said, was often “a burst of laughter and a big ‘Hello, I can’t believe you thought of me!’”

And Joe Petrucelli, the foundation’s associate director, told me that when Irene hit the hardest, “Our staff spent the day calling musicians in New York and New Jersey, checking to see if they live in mandatory evacuation zones and making sure they were stocked up on essential supplies and taking necessary precautions.”

“Because of all these calls,” Wendy added, “we found that one of our all-time favorite cool-school jazz pioneers had fallen last week and not told us. Joe went to visit him on his way home tonight, bringing him a little cash so he could get a taxi if he had to leave his area and a food card to a nearby supermarket, along with some canned goods and a flashlight.

“Also, the two of them listened to Charlie Parker on Joe’s iPod, and you could hear this guy playing in the background with Parker when he was young and had the world at his feet. Now he was hurt from the fall and had no food in the house till we came. His fear completely turned to happy chatting that lasted 45 minutes till Joe had to leave and get food to the next person.”

Wendy was also on the streets, and said she was “able to take someone shopping who had no food and no money. He said it was ‘like Christmas in August,’ and we didn’t even get more than two bags of food. … One of our single-parent musicians with a 5-year-old was told they are living in a dangerous area for the storm, and I told them they can contact the foundation and we—their ‘family’—will get a place for them.”

It’s important to note, if a reader is considering a donation to the Jazz Foundation, that when Wendy took over as executive director in 2000, the foundation was helping 35 musicians a year in New York. As I write, they handle more than 6,000 cases annually throughout the country—in at least 37 states, plus Washington, D.C. “There are so many stories,” Joe Petrucelli continued. “In our newsletter last fall, we recounted the experience of New Orleans trumpeter Terrell Batiste of the Hot 8 Brass Band, who lost both of his legs in a car accident five years earlier. In October 2010, the late ‘Saint’ Agnes, our most extraordinary and active contributor, pledged $50,000 to help him acquire prosthetics. In May 2011, he walked onto the stage of the Apollo Theater and performed at our 10th annual ‘Great Night in Harlem’ gala.”

The Foundation program that bears the name of its master donor, the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools program, is continuing as a major priority because, said Petrucelli, “It represents our mission and purpose so perfectly—to keep our elder musicians working and self-supporting, to preserve and pass on the legacy to younger audiences to share the joy of the live music experience.”

Over the past five years, more than 17,000 gigs have opened for about 1,000 elderly jazz and blues musicians, including, Wendy noted, “hundreds of artists from New Orleans still affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” These elders introduce jazz “to thousands of public school children, many of whom have never been exposed to it, as they share their life stories with hundreds of new fans.”

During 2010 and until this past July 1, the foundation helped jazz enliven schools in 19 states. Moreover, a Jazz Foundation report points out how the program “has expanded to include venues like children’s hospitals and nursing homes, offering senior citizens in elder care a chance to recapture their youth and in many cases sing and even get out of their wheelchairs and dance!”

In my next column, there will be even more to tell about this ultimate jazz family founded in 1989 by, among others, Herb Storfer, the late Dr. Billy Taylor and Phoebe Jacobs (now also in the “rhythm section” of the Louis Armstrong Foundation). To join them, visit www.jazzfoundation.org. That way, if jazz has become part of your life, you can help revitalize the future for many jazz musicians who have more stories to tell. JT

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181.

Originally published in November 2011

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