Beauty Fights The Beasts: Wendy Oxenhorn Vs Homelessness, Poverty, Illness And Despair

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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My only fear is that any press that comes out gets us more musicians -- we're getting more and more -- as opposed to the money, which these days is harder to come by.
At the recent Jazz Journalist Association awards, a benefit for the Jazz Foundation of America [JFA] for which she's executive director, Wendy Oxenhorn was an odd sight: wailing away on the harmonica in the middle of a blues band, swaying and dipping gracefully like the ballerina she once was. In her soft pink dress and long, curling blond hair, she seemed like a lily pad floating in muddy water - a bit startling, but very natural and perfectly at home.

When I first heard about Oxenhorn, it was all rumor. The buzz was that she was a wealthy and possibly titled patron of the arts, someone like the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who was a friend to Monk and Bird. In fact, she's a hard-working single mother of two who used to make her living playing music in the subway. Today, this delicate-looking woman with the big hazel eyes is a fierce fighter for the well-being of jazz musicians, a job which involves everything from wrestling with landlords and bargaining with judges to knowing whose cat needs to be fed while someone's in the hospital.

I interviewed Oxenhorn recently at JFA's headquarters, a squirrel's nest on the third floor of the Musicians Union, on West 48th Street. The office is a small, cluttered room carved out of union space that she shares with Lauren Roberts, her very capable assistant. When Oxenhorn interviews clients, Roberts works at a little desk just outside the door. [Note: since this interview, the JFA hired Laverne Washington, a retired social worker and "closet saxophonist" to help with assessments and interventions. An expert at navigating the social services, housing, and mental health labrynths, Washington frees Wendy up to do more fundraising. As far as additional office space, she says, "we're negotiating for a closet." In the meantime, Roberts reports that they're playing "musical computers."]

JFA was founded in 1989 by Herb Storfer, Dr. Billy Taylor, Ann Ruckert, and Phoebe Jacobs. Starting with a local focus, it now has a national reach.

AAJ: How did you get into this?

Oxenhorn: I've been doing non-profit all my life. I started very young. I came to New York at 14 alone, to be a ballerina, and was with NYC ballet in their school, but I got a knee injury at 17 just before you get into the company, and was told I'd be crippled by the time I was 40 if I continued. I was seriously depressed, needless to say. I called a suicide hot line. The woman on the other end of the phone was about 50 and her husband had just left her for a 25-year-old, and she started talking to me. So, after counseling her, I ended up working there within like three days. I took whatever it was in my depression, and started getting out of myself by listening to other people's problems. It works.

I can't even count how many projects, non-profit related, like for kids that are hard to adopt — I got the Mets involved with them. Then I found myself a single parent with a one-year old — no, by the time I did that charity she was two — I got into a charitable effort where I could take her to work. I took on a small welfare hotel with a partner, Carol Ann Ross — 25 kids on 31st street — we planned outings for them, got the city to give us free school buses, the circus to give us free tickets. It was just amazing, we took them to places where they never would have gone. A lot of problems were with children of addiction, which brought me to Children of Substance — running a boarding house from my apartment — all the others, I never got paid for, I never took salaries until I did Street News [in 1989 she co-founded a New York city paper that employed about 2000 homeless to sell it] but I was working 17 hours a day, and didn't see my kid. When I ran Children of Substance, I didn't have to worry about the rent, and I had a second child. I wanted to stay home and raise her.

But being a single parent with two kids, I soon had to get real work. I took a job in Internet sales — monitoring service for a PR firm — and ended up having love affair with an Italian composer. It ended tragically, but this time instead of calling the suicide hot line, I picked up the harmonica. I'm a blues man from way back. Never played an instrument — picked this thing up — that was it, like an old man from Missisissippi. Little Walter died the day I was born — it's my fantasy that maybe somehow I caught a molecule of his in passing.

So I got bit by the music, and was playing about three hours a day. It got to the point where I met an old man from Mississippi who played the subway stations. I used to watch him for years. One day, I flashed my little silver harmonica — he slapped his leg and said "we're gonna make googobs of money!"

And he started letting me play with him. I have to say I really was pretty terrible. I'd take a quick solo, then pass the player's bucket. But I was useful, so he let me stay — and he was patient. He played guitar and sang. He had a magnificent voice.

I cut my job back to two half-days a week, and three days a week, I'd be in the train station with him, practicing and playing and passing the bucket — my blues dues. I didn't make a dime. Once in awhile he'd crumble up a Jackson and stick it in my purse: "you did good, kid." We had a great time and I was with him about a year, then realized I needed more money.

I went to hear music one night — Eliot Sharp, a genius composer — he's well-known in Europe, but I didn't know that at the time. He was doing something on guitar, and I thought, we gotta get a CD for the old man to sell, and this guy would be a great guitarist. So I told him I had the last of the real deal from Missisissippi, he plays the train stations with me, I want to get a CD made for him, and would you play on it? I brought Eliot up to Harlem to meet the old man. He loved him, and walking back he said you know I have a studio, it isn't much, but we could do something. He recorded us for free and gave us a CD to sell in the subway. Then we were making $150 apiece at rush hour, three days a week. I was making money, getting better, and we were drawing crowds — 30, 40 people. The beautiful part is that when you make a mistake, the person who's seen you leaves after four minutes to catch their train — and on with the next!

It was a beautiful experience. The old man really became like my family, and it was my first experience with helping an older musician — there's always a reason that things happen. Well...the old man got himself a young chick in her 50s, and she wouldn't let me play anymore with the band. She wanted to sing with them, didn't want another woman in the band. I really thought she was going to cut me. It became a real blues life.

So I had to leave, and that was worse than the Italian composer — it broke my heart, but it made me open to looking for something to do. Two people told me about this job, helping all these great older musicians. I don't question anymore when tragedy strikes — I put a smile on my face and say God, what's next? — and it's usually something really wonderful. I can't imagine anything better than this, though I said that when I was in love with the Italian composer (laughs).

AAJ: So you get paid for this one?

Oxenhorn: Yeah, it's a job. I get paid. Lauren gets paid too.

AAJ: What's the workload like?

Oxenhorn: Hours a week? I couldn't estimate — it used to be about 70 when I was here alone, the first year I came in. At that point, the Foundation was helping about 35 musicians a year, and it was really a gallant effort. It was run by a man who had his own business, Herbert Storfer. On the side, from his home, he worked on this. It never really had the full attention. For awhile I had someone who was here to help with the emergencies, but I didn't do fundraising. Now we're up to 300 musicians this year - which is a lot. My only fear is that any press that comes out gets us more musicians — we're getting more and more — as opposed to the money, which these days is harder to come by.

AAJ: How do people find out about you?

Oxenhorn: I usually find people through someone else, since so many are too proud to ask for help. Word of mouth has spread. It used to be I'd have to call someone two and three times just to get them in here, someone I knew needed help, now friends are telling friends, the community has opened up, it's beautiful — they know they have a place to come.

AAJ: Your original mandate was to help musicians 50 and older who've been professionals for at least 10 years...

Oxenhorn: Yes, but the guys that are coming in here are getting younger and younger. I don't know how much people realize how much damage 9/11 did — now it's way past 9/11, but it's still in the restaurants and clubs. It's important to make the distinction that it's not the big clubs like Birdland and Blue Note and Smoke, who all pay their musicians quite nicely, as far as I know. I'm talking about the Village restaurants and clubs that used to pay someone $75 for a gig for three hours. They lost so much business after 9/11 that they said hey, we can't have the music anymore, so the musicians said look, I'll do it for $25, just to keep food on their table. $25 and a meal. What happened was, the restaurants and clubs got busier again, but they got used to paying less. What's even worse — like at a place called Chez Suzette — you bring your own audience and you just get the door. At the Bitter End, my band was told we'd get the door, but they didn't say you get the door only if the people came to see you. They ask everyone "did you come to see the band, or are you just walking in?"

A lot of the smaller clubs have closed — Chicago Blues, Manny's Carwash, and Small's just closed this last weekend — all the real-deal places where you could get a gig a week or a month are now paying less and less. There are two small places in the Village that still pay $75 a musician, and also let you pass the basket - there are still a few little places that do this — but the trend seems to be that only music- makers who have day jobs can afford to play in NYC in the smaller clubs.

We're not talking about the Heath Brothers and Ron Carter — we're talking about the guys who always made their living just from jazz. Most of them have recorded with someone at some point in their life, or played with everyone, and they're all really good musicians, but it's getting tougher and tougher. We're seeing more people come in who used to have four gigs a week in NY and now have an average of two gigs a month, three a month, tops.

This is jazz or blues only. If we're talking about people who are versatile, like a guitarist or percussionist who's playing world music or R&B, they'll still find three gigs a week, sometimes more. But for people who are just jazz, it's getting tougher and tougher. It's the trickle-down effect from 9/11, which started the places being able to say, hey, we can't pay any more.


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