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Jewish World Review August 14, 2001 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Bringing jazz musicians back to life -- WHEN I was a kid, between double features at the movies, there was often a short subject showing impoverished and often ill actors being well taken care of at the Will Rogers home for actors in need. Then the lights would go on, and there was a request for contributions.

Years later, when I had become immersed in the world of jazz as an enthusiastic record collector, reviewer, and, for a time, record producer, I would wonder why there was not a similar fund -- and resources -- for jazz musicians in need, often in desperate need.

Most jazz musicians, then as now, receive no medical benefits in their itinerant jobs. They get no pensions. And some of the older players, no longer in fashion, are often out of work for long periods. As one of them told me, "I wait for the phone to ring."

But in recent years, there is at last the New York-based Jazz Foundation of America. The foundation pays the rent arrears of musicians about to be evicted; gets sick and broke musicians in contact with such services as Meals on Wheels; and takes care, without charge, of their medical needs through the foundation's partnership with New Jersey's Englewood Hospital & Medical Center's Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute. Also participating is Harlem Hospital.

As one of the musicians helped by the foundation's Jazz Musicians' Emergency Fund says: "The Jazz Foundation saved my life. I thought I had no reason to get out of bed anymore. But they put me back on the road by paying my rent arrears and taking care of my health problems so I can play again. I wake up optimistic."

And another jazz player, who is on a number of collectors' items recordings, says: "Lots of people save jazz albums. But how often do you have a chance to save a jazz musician?"

Dizzy Gillespie, a man of extraordinary generosity of spirit, whom I was privileged to know off the stand, was instrumental in expanding the Jazz Foundation's free health services.

When he was dying of cancer at Englewood Hospital, Dizzy told his physician, Frank Forte -- an oncologist, hematologist and internist -- "I want you to take care of the musicians who haven't been as fortunate as I have been."

Through the Dizzy Gillespie Institute at the hospital, and in conjunction with the foundation's network of pro bono doctors, jazz musicians have received more than $200,000 a year in donated funds for heart surgery, cancer treatment, tests and other medical care.

On Sept. 24, at Harlem's Apollo Theater -- where many jazz legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, have appeared -- there will be an historic gathering of world-renowned jazz improvisers in a program titled "A Great Night in Harlem." The proceeds will go to benefit the foundation's Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund. With Bill Cosby and TV analyst Gil Noble as masters of ceremonies, the musicians -- and this is just a brief list -- will include Max Roach, Clark Te

rry, Cassandra Wilson, Phil Woods, Roy Haynes, Ahmad Jamal, Etta Jones and Ron Carter. In 1958, Esquire magazine printed a classic photograph of an assembly of jazz musicians encompassing much of the history of the music. It later became the subject of a compelling film, "A Great Day in Harlem," in which I was very proud to play a small part. At the time of the photograph, pianist Marian McPartland said, "Imagine if they had all come together to play!"

On Sept. 24, at the Apollo, an equally impressive galaxy of jazz creators will indeed come together to play in unprecedented numbers. For information about the event, contact the Jazz Foundation of America at 322 West 48th St., New York, N.Y., 10036.

The foundation's executive director, Wendy Oxenham, deals with threatening landlords, visits musicians to help arrange for their medical care, and sometimes has them as dinner guests at her apartment. "They know if they're hungry," she says, "they can call and come by."

Wendy emphasizes: "What we do is in no way a handout. It's a privilege to be of use to people who spent a lifetime giving us all they had. So many now are living alone without help, or with the constant threat of homelessness or untreated illnesses."

Jazz is an essential part of the life force for many -- very much including me -- and it's vital to regenerate that source.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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