Honoring America’s Cultural Foundation
It can be argued with some confidence that there are no American art forms more authentic and influential than Jazz and Blues. Not even baseball, which finds its mid-19th century roots in England, can claim to be as all American as our music.
Jazz clubs and Blues bars can be found in Paris and Kyoto, Leningrad, Athens and Kuala Lumpur. The venues are sacrosanct worldwide, and yet, not enough has been done in this country to honor the individuals responsible for the traditions’ global popularity.
At a time when New York City is fending off a world of criticism for being the center of Wall Street avarice and spearheading the charge to near national financial collapse, it is essential to highlight the institutions dedicated to doing good for the city.
The Jazz Foundation of America was created in 1989 by Herb Storfer, Dr. Billy Taylor, Ann Ruckert, Cy Blank, Phoebe Jacobs and James Briggs Murray, in hopes of serving an invaluable mission: to preserve the history, and future, of Jazz, Blues and Gospel, and to promote the music to the universe at large.
The J.F.A. attains their goal by caring for elderly musicians. Many are living without health insurance, pension plans or savings. Early recording contracts were comically unfair: one-time buy-outs (a paltry sum per session) kept them from garnering the royalties contemporary musicians depend on to survive.
Try licensing The Rolling Stones “Time Is On My Side” for a movie and you’ll find that Limited usage rights from the label and ASCAP union fees can run well past $25,000. But Blues pioneer, Jimmy Norman– the song’s original author– gets diddly.
Enter the Jazz Foundation of America. In 1991, a fundraiser brought in $60,000, enabling the J.F.A. to activate the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund. Co-founder, Herb Storfer ran the philanthropy out of his loft in the Flatiron District, assisting an average of 35 musicians a year, often dipping into his own funds. But it was a no-brainer for Storfer. While city and state governments sifted through heaps of bureaucracy to find funds for monuments and memorials for the long since deceased, the Jazz Foundation was looking to help cultural icons that were living and breathing: the musicians.
In what can only be chalked-up to cultural kismet, in 1994, just before Dizzy Gillespie passed on to that giant bandstand in the sky, he made a special request of his doctor at the Englewood Hospital in New Jersey: do what you can to help financially troubled musicians in need of medical care.
Dr. Frank Forte honored the request and in association with The Jazz Foundation, began offering free treatment for qualified Jazz and Blues musicians. To this day, Dr. Forte’s network of pro bono specialists has treated thousands of musicians in need without charge, from hip replacements to cancer treatment: an estimated $5 million dollars in care.
In 2000, the Foundation hired Wendy Oxenhorn as its Executive Director. With only $7000 left in the fund, her first proposal to fill the coffers was to produce a celebrity fundraiser at the Apollo Theater. When she learned the Foundation couldn’t afford the venue, she approached the J.F.A.’s newest board member, an E*TRADE executive named, Jarrett Lilien, to ask for advice. He gave it to her in the form of cash, enough to secure the Apollo for a night, and an annual tradition was born.
The first “Great Night In Harlem” Benefit Concert at the Apollo raised $350,000. This year, $1.1 million was raised. The money is allocated to several programs established to help those who made our musical heritage what it is today.
The Musicians Emergency Housing Fund focuses on keeping mortgages of elderly musicians from foreclosure, and paying the rents of those who are unable to due to sickness, while the Musicians Legacy Program was established to pair younger musicians with more experienced mentors who are homebound or no longer able to perform live. The mentee gets hands-on training from a seasoned veteran for free, and the mentor gets the pleasure and camaraderie of nurturing an aspiring talent.
Ms. Katrina’s rude visit in 2005 devastated hundreds of musicians. Many who were on tour had no homes to return to. Others lost their instruments and hence, the ability to support their families. Before the Flood, these musicians could work seven days a week. After, not only had the federal government abandoned them, but the fall in tourism affected businesses across the board, as well as the arts: bars closed, clubs cut rates, and bands broke up as fellow musicians fled to neighboring cities to earn a living.
The Jazz Foundation experienced its most exhausting year with Katrina, becoming a vital resource for getting artists back on their feet. They gave direct financial aid to 3500 emergency cases. They arranged for $250,000 worth of manufacturer-donated top-shelf instruments.
Then, with a miraculous $1 million dollar donation from “Saint” Agnes Varis, the J.F.A. established the Jazz in Schools program, which generated employment for more than 1000 musicians in 8 states.
On May 14th, 2009 the J.F.A. celebrated its 20th year in existence with an impressive line-up at The Apollo Theater in Harlem. The night was hosted by Soprano’s star and dedicated musicphile, Michael Imerioli, and featured both burgeoning talent and codified greats.
Testimonials of the Foundation’s assistance were interspersed between acts. The May 18th New York Times Metro Section featured one of the more dramatic ones. Terence Conley, a jazz pianist who entered a coma after being injured in a driving accident, was slow to recover. Little by little, he has regained his prowess on the 88’s and the J.F.A. “offered Mr. Conley the opportunity to begin performing again at nursing homes around the city as a dignified way of helping him pay his bills.”
Benefit highlights included performances by Alberta Adams, who at 91, can still light up a very big room. Her 60+ year career began in the blues bastion of Detroit and led her to a contract at Chess Records where she performed with Duke Ellington, Louis Moody and T-Bone Walker. Her present confinement to a wheel chair has not diminished the potency of her voice, or her touring schedule, which takes her throughout the U.S. and Europe.
The youthful “piano prince” of New Orleans, Davell Crawford, performed an emotional tribute to several late greats whose portraits were projected on drop screen: Jimmy McGriff, Eartha Kitt, David “Fathead” Newman, Isaac Hayes, and Bo Diddly, among many others.
The legendary Dr. John, donning a purple three-piece and matching fedora, backed Irma Thomas on piano as she sang, “You Can Have My Husband, But Don’t Mess With My Man” with trademark élan.
Stanley Jordan was an unscheduled surprise. He was passing though town, and being familiar with benefit’s cause, asked if he could participate. His signature rendition of “Georgia” was nothing short of spinetingling, and the perfect prelude to Sweet Georgia Brown’s raucous “Let The Good Times Roll” medley, which brought the sold-out crowd to its feet.
“Oh, I’m dirty…” cooed Georgia beneath her bleach blond, Mr. Heat Miser haircut. Deacon John flavored the breaks with virtuosic slide guitar licks and Chuck Berry leg kicks. And matriarch Beverly “Guitar” Watkins finished them off by shredding behind her back and above her head.
The unexpected finale arrived when Foundation Director Wendy Oxenhorn came on stage searing sorrowful notes from a well worn harmonica.
An inspired after party spilled into a sprawling tent behind the Apollo.There were plentiful celebrity sightings, but their stars were out shown by the achievements of the Foundation.
There is more work to be done, of course. More funds to be raised. More help to be proffered. But clearly the inspiration is there, as is the generosity of several enlightened individuals and corporations: a true relief in the age of unconscionable bottom lines and fallacious net profits. Investing in this sacred heritage, an intrinsic national treasure, our most culturally significant export– the music– will no doubt provide boundless returns in the future.
So if you’re feeling it, kick in a little yourself. It’ll clear away whatever blues you got, guaranteed…