Expanding and Deepening the Jazz Legacy

The Jazz Foundation's many missions

I’ve long been aware of creative makers of jazz documentaries, and I keep hoping there’ll eventually be a film on the Jazz Foundation of America. Last month I reported on the Foundation’s life-enhancing work for jazz elders, but lesser known is its Musicians Legacy Program, which, according to the Foundation’s website, “funds one-on-one music lessons by elder established musicians who have recorded and played with the jazz and blues giants and, in many cases, are the giants themselves.”

There are—especially now, in this long-term recession—many aspiring musicians who don’t have the bread to afford lessons. With this Legacy Program, the Foundation notes, “[These students] can perfect their craft and learn from the very performers they grew up listening to—musicians who might have inspired them in the first place.”

As a kid growing up during what was actually called the Great Depression, I’d practice on my metal clarinet and fantasize about getting tips from Barney Bigard, Irving Fazola and Lester Young (he was the Prez of the clarinet, too). I even dreamt that when Barney was sidelined, Duke would call and ask me to substitute.

I’ve been impressed through the years at how many established players get so much satisfaction in also being teachers. Clark Terry immediately swings to mind, as well as Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Art Davis, Jon Faddis, Ron Carter, Jimmy Heath and so many more.

At the Jazz Foundation, “Target populations for this project include urban and underserved student populations … These students are referred to us by professional musicians who have seen them play locally or by teachers who recognize their talent.” The project not only passes on the jazz legacy but also, the Foundation notes, helps those elders “who suffer from depression as a result of being homebound,” allowing them to “regain purpose in their life.” And, adds the Foundation, “these elder artists are the ones who often have no other options to earn income and sustain themselves.”

Getting back to some of the Foundation’s other missions, Associate Director Joe Petrucelli tells of an example, cited by Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, “of an older musician who is going blind, not gigging much and thus having trouble meeting monthly expenses. In the short term, we can find someone to visit him every week, shop for groceries and help with housekeeping. In the longer term, we can set him up with monthly work in the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools program”—described in Final Chorus last month—“which helps him make the rent.”

In the Foundation’s most recent social-work report by Alisa Hafkin, there is evidence of time spent on cases that don’t translate into monies paid out directly to musicians: “Some of our case management efforts include researching health insurance and housing opportunities, applying for various forms of assistance from charitable organizations … and advocacy.”

As for the time involved with individual case managing and counseling, “As licensed social workers, we are able to offer time for therapeutic purposes, particularly when a musician is faced with dramatic changes including sudden life-threatening illnesses, a death in the family, accidents and job crises…”

For a long time I’ve been following the Foundation’s attempt to set up and maintain a musicians’ residence. It’s something I’ve been hoping for since I first saw, between movie features, fund-raising shorts depicting such residences for actors who were barely surviving.

In the Foundation’s April 25, 2011 quarterly board report, there is this hopeful prospect for jazz musicians now and in the future: “Jonathan Rose Companies and the Actor’s Fund have proposed development for the Taystee Bakery Site on West 126th Street [Harlem]. The mixed-use development would provide affordable housing, rehearsal facilities and performance space for jazz musicians. We have indicated our support for the project and are potential partners going forward.”

In the same report is an update on finances. I include this information to emphasize how remarkable the range and depth of the Foundation’s continuing achievements are despite diminishing financial support. I have no expertise in what it takes to keep foundations solvent, but I’m astonished that this foundation is able to accomplish so much—and keep planning ahead—when “[i]ncome for the first nine months of the fiscal year was $1,366,879, which was below forecast by 28 percent. Donations came to $624,444; event income amounted to $511,845; grants were $118,850; contributions from members of the Foundation’s board totaled $110,200; and other income was $1,540.”

And the Foundation did this: “Expenses for the first nine months of the fiscal year were $1,992,470, which was 4 percent below forecast. Administration expenses were $603,995; Musicians’ Care totaled $1,189,072; event expenses amounted to $178,140; marketing was $16,308; and other expenses came to $4,955. Total cash on hand as of March 31 was $1,291,333.”

Those for whom this music is an essential part of their lives can see how vital their donations are—no matter what these enlivened listeners can afford. For more information on how to lessen suffering and generate sustainable hope in the jazz family, visit Jazz Foundation.

Nat Hentoff can be contacted at 212-366-9181

Originally published in December 2011

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