Jazz Foundation of America
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The Jazz Foundation of America (JFA) is a non-profit organization based in Manhattan, New York founded in 1989. The JFA's programs seek to help jazz and blues musicians in need of emergency funds and connect them with performance opportunities in schools and the community. The organization works to bridge the gap between social and medical resources and the jazz legends whose careers did not ensure this kind of support.
The Jazz Musicians' Emergency Fund and Housing Fund, established with corporate help, specifically helps freelance musicians who don't have standard benefits, a pension plan or health insurance to cover one-time expenses. Often, the musicians grow older and due to life tragedies or health problems, can no longer work steadily and find themselves unable to make ends meet. Musicians can apply to JFA social workers for assistance with rent, housing, mortgage payments, healthcare, and more. The Jazz Foundation of America has also created a volunteer network of other professionals (and caring jazz enthusiasts) throughout the United States who endeavor to provide free legal, dental, and other health services when needed.
The JFA's Jazz in the Schools program extends through eight states and operates as both a tool for educational outreach and as an employment service. Jazz in the Schools offers free hour-long performances by recognized musicians, incorporating lessons about instrumentation and jazz music history. In return, the musicians are paid fair wages by the JFA. The Varis/Jazz in Schools program employs over 120 musicians throughout New York City and hundreds throughout the south, reaching dozens of public schools and hospital schools each month and touching the daily lives of hundreds of school children.
The organization began with founder Herb Storfer and friends Ann Ruckert, Phoebe Jacobs and Billy Taylor in 1989. Storfer housed the Foundation in his Manhattan Loft, and funds to support it were raised through tickets to jam sessions in the loft. Shortly after incorporation in 1990, the newly titled Jazz Foundation of America held a fundraising event at Town Hall, raising over sixty thousand dollars to establish the Jazz Emergency Fund. Shortly after, two established jazz musicians, Jamil Nassar and Jimmy Owens, became the organization's outreach network, connecting musicians in need of rent money or medical payments to the organization's founder. The committee of founders began to network with other service organizations who shared similar objectives—the Actor's Fund and MusiCares provided part-time social workers for the JFA's substance abuse programs.
From 1997 to 2000, a new executive director, Susan Cipollone, worked up one or two assessments a day and helped about 35 musicians in a year. The JFA offered substance abuse programs and began their Monday night jam sessions as a way of recruiting musicians in need.
When the Jazz Foundation became official in 1990, they recruited a 26-member board of directors and associates made up of friends and supportive acquaintances who offered in-kind services, gave advice and volunteered time. When jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie died in 1993, one of his last requests was that any jazz musician in need of medical care be treated free of charge at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. His initial request was that doctors would provide free treatment to one musician per year. This evolved into a pro bono network of physicians at Englewood Hospital & Health Center to treat a growing number of musicians. Physicians Frank Forte and Bob Litwick headed up the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund, and the JFA referred clients to the hospital for treatment. The organization eventually provided uninsured veteran jazz musicians with $300,000 a year in pro bono medical care and operations.
The organization moved into an office in the Local 802 branch of the American Federation of Musicians. In 2000 Wendy Oxenhorn became Executive Director and increased the number of musicians assisted from 35 a year to over 150. Oxenhorn set up a fundraising gala at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, "A Great Night in Harlem" 13 days before September 11, 2001 and, with backing from E-Trade COO Jarrett Lilien, who later became the board president and created its first Emergency Housing fund and built its first board committees. The concert raised $350,000. "A Great Night in Harlem" became an annual spring event at the Apollo Theater. Oxenhorn began to create a supportive network to help prevent musicians from becoming destitute, rather than offering them last-resort funds.
After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many musicians found it increasingly difficult to find work in the afflicted economy. The JFA assisted musicians in the New York community, helping to pay mortgages and utilities and finding new venues of employment for the artists. Oxenhorn's organization was awarded $100,000 from the Music Performance Trust Fund with the help of the Local 802 Union and created school gigs for over 400 musicians in financial difficulties because their gigs and tours had been canceled. The JFA's case load expanded from 35 cases in a year to over 500.
After Hurricane Katrina, Oxenhorn met Dr. Agnes Varis at a JFA event that Dick Parsons was hosting, and told her about the need to help the musicians in New Orleans as she had helped the musicians in New York after 9/11. Varis agreed to give $250,000 to create a Jazz in the Schools program in which musicians were paid fair fees to play one-hour educational performances in local schools. In this mutually beneficial relationship, students receive a live musical education at no cost to the school, and the musicians are able to earn a living.
Over 20 million dollars were raised since the first concert and over 6,000 emergency assists were possible each year. The Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program grew, and helped hundreds of musicians in crisis, paying them to play jazz and blues music to over 80,000 public school children across America.
A Great Night in Harlem
Besides major donors Agnes Varis, E-Trade Financial and Time Warner, the JFA derives much of its funding from its annual fundraiser, "A Great Night in Harlem," held each May for the past seven years. This gala event features a sponsor dinner and all-star concert at the Apollo Theater, and has been hosted by celebrities such as Danny Glover, Bill Cosby, Gil Noble, and Danny Aiello. Past performers include Odetta, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Dr. Michael White, Regina Carter, Elvis Costello, Arturo O'Farrill, Candido Camero, Sweet Georgia Brown, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase, Joe Piscopo, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Hank Jones, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Heath, Paul Shaffer, Jimmy Norman and more.
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- Interview with Wendy Atlas Oxenhorn, November 1, 2006
- Making Sure Musicians Don't Get The Blues (New York Times, December 26, 2002)
- Not Much Traffic, But A Steady Jam (New York Times, November 8, 2005)
- Keeping Jazz—And Its Musicians—Alive (Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2004)
- Advocate Works Night and Day to Assist Needy Jazz Musicians (Chronicle of Philanthropy, February 19, 2004)
- Getting Their Groove Back (People Magazine, October 3, 2005)
- Keeping New Orleans Musicians Alive (Stereophile, October 2005)
- In Katrina's Wake, Wendy Comes to the Jazzmen's Rescue (Wall Street Journal, October 2005)