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Helping musicians

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

America's most original contribution to the arts, Jazz has long been called an international language. But the force of its impact was especially dramatized when -- during a fierce civil war in the Belgian Congo, like the one going on now -- leaders on both sides suspended hostilities, declaring a truce as they heard that Louis Armstrong, the embodiment of the jazz spirit, was booked in their country.

But this worldwide recognition of our sharing the life force and joy of jazz does not extend to the increasing number of ill and elderly jazz musicians here at home facing evictions and in need of emergency medical care, but without resources.

Among them are not just players who, despite their appearances on many historic recordings, are not jazz stars. And even as famous a trumpeter as Freddie Hubbard was in a state several years ago when, he recalls, "I had congestive heart failure, my wife had lost her job and we lost our insurance. When it happened, man, I didn't know what I was going to do." However, he heard about the New York-based Jazz Foundation of America, formed by musicians and supporters to whom the music is a vital part of their lives. Since then, the foundation has taken care of rent arrears; provided sustenance, including food; and provided free medical care, including surgery, through the Englewood (New Jersey) Hospital and Medical Center's Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund.

Gillespie, who had more generosity of spirit than almost anyone I've ever known, was dying of cancer at Englewood Hospital when he said to his oncologist, Dr. Frank Forte, "Please try to provide the kind of care I'm getting for musicians who can't afford it." Until Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans, the Jazz Foundation had been taking care of an average of 35 elderly jazz and blues musicians a week. Since the hurricane's devastation, there have been around 1,000 emergency cases concerning New Orleans players. Moreover, the foundation replaced more than $250,000 worth of new top-shelf instruments.

And with the financial help of Agnes Varis, also a vital contributor to Jazz at LincolnCenter, and Richard Parsons, the head of TimeWarner, more than half a million dollars has been devoted to employ displaced New Orleans musicians in seven states where they've had to resettle. These gigs through the Agnes Varis/Jazz Foundation in the schools program include sessions in homes for seniors.

What keeps the Jazz Foundation of America going in and out of emergencies is its annual "A Great Day in Harlem" concerts at the storied Apollo Theater, where Ella Fitzgerald was discovered and Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other legendary creators played.

The Fifth Annual "Great Day in Harlem" is again at the Apollo (253 W. 125th St., between 7th and 8th Avenues) on May 4.

Bill Cosby, himself a master improviser, will preside. The last time he was master of ceremonies there, I suggested, and I wasn't entirely kidding, that he run for president. "What?" he said, "and bankrupt my wife?" I wish he would reconsider.

Appropriately, on stage, will be the New Orleans' New Birth/Rebirth Band coming down the aisles, and later, Dr. Michael White's Liberty Band. Also: The ceaselessly imaginative trumpeter Clark Terry; Abbey Lincoln; master bassist Ron Carter; Ben Riley; and Gary Bartz, among others. And, in a wheelchair, 85-year-old blues singer and composer Johnnie Mae Dunson, who wrote for Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed and was one of the first blues drummers. She's been helped by the Jazz Foundation, and she'll make the Apollo jump.

Also, on passionate blues harmonica is the indomitable Wendy Oxenhorn, who directs the Jazz Foundation at all hours. (Wendy has fed hungry musicians at her home as they begin to become who they once were because of the foundation.) For tickets and information about the Fifth Annual "Great Day in Harlem," the phone number is (212) 245-3999 (ext. 3999), or you can click on to www.jazzfoundation.org.

In the planning stage for jazz players is a jazz residence with affordable rents, a rehearsal hall and a phone number to contact them for gigs. Jarrett Lilien, the president of E*Trade Financial who has been an indispensable source of support for the foundation is spearheading the campaign.

"Musicians," says Miss Oxenhorn, "are the healers of the world. They can take the sadness out of your soul when you lose love, or when you are so disappointed in the world that you feel each time that you turn on the news. They can make you remember what is truly important in life and give you joy every time." There'll be joy aplenty at the Apollo on May 4.