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.

AAJ: (makes noises of distressed agreement)

Oxenhorn: And also — let's not forget the new no-smoking law has killed business in the clubs. It has killed business, and you can quote me there. On the other side, just to be fair, I see a lot of the musicians who have lung cancer and serious lung ailments from playing the clubs and breathing smoke all these years. I do see that. But I also see now, a lot of the clubs are much less crowded because of the smoking laws. The third demon is the fact that there's a serious depression going on that no one seems to talk about. Every other person I know in the corporate world is either losing their job, trying to find another one, or they're unemployed. I haven't had child support for a year and half — he lost his job in 9/11, and a he's brilliant man. Nothing. Nothing. You read these articles in the Times about corporate guys taking jobs at the Gap...

With all of that, the entertainment field always suffers. The record industry suffers because there's no extra money. And the rents in NY are staggering. Musicares [the aid organization connected with the Grammy Awards] is doing emergency only right now — they're cutting back too, there's a lot less money out there on 56th Street. "Emergency only" means that something serious happened to you — if it's just lack of gigs, we can't help you. And a number of musicians lost European tours when the Iraq war started. They're weren't too crazy about us over there.

We're talking about a population of older musicians, who never learned computer, and even if they did, at the age of 65 I have a feeling they're not going to be hired. I have a 63-year-old musician who was homeless this year. He had double pneumonia, was evicted, didn't know about us til after, and for eight months he was alternating between sleeping in his car — and this was from January on — and sleeping on the floor of his manager's office. After his double pneumonia and hospital, two weeks after his eviction, he got himself a job at a supermarket in the frozen food section — working eight hours a day, five days a week, he takes home $170. He's just getting back to himself and is starting to gig two or three days a week. He's a talented musician — not a household name, but he played with everyone, he was really there. This was someone at 63 working in a supermarket. Another guy who's 55 is painting houses. He's finally leaving NY, going elsewhere. He heard the gigs are better out West.

AAJ: Are they?

Oxenhorn: Yeah, I've heard the Midwest, Milwaukee...not bad...

AAJ: About that NEA study on the worklife of jazz musicians..did you see it?

Oxenhorn: No, I offered to help them but they never called me. What does it say?

AAJ: Well, for one thing, there's the fact that a musician, even with a Master's degree, will earn much much less than someone of comparable education and age in another field. They say the most common income is between 20 and 40 thousand a year. [For more details, see Shrinktunes column, Are-ee-ess-pee-EE-cee- tee]

Oxenhorn: I'd say $15,000 and under is what I see as an average - and the older guys, about $3000-7000 a year. Some of the people I take care of are household names, yet they're not making anywhere near that. What percentage of musicians in the study were in Broadway shows?

AAJ: It doesn't say. I've been trying to get the raw data with specific breakdowns, but so far they haven't sent it. Meanwhile, when the study asked the musicians' #1 goal, it was "to perfect the art" — after that, they deal with everything else.

Oxenhorn: That's why I worry for the future of the music life of NY. If it's only to be had for those who work during the day, and function in another way, then where are the guys that are unable to do anything but the music? Those are the people we want to hear too.

AAJ: You'd think most musicians going into jazz know the financial hazards, but it seems their devotion to the music is more important...?

Oxenhorn: Sometimes I don't even know if it's a matter of devotion. In the work that I've done, I believe when you have the music in you, when you have this creative force in you, there's no other way to live with yourself unless you get it out... I can understand that. Even now — on my way home — sometimes I let three trains go by just to wail at the edge of the platform.

AAJ: The health issue was also cited as a major problem.

Oxenhorn: Here's a big one: untreated illness because no one had health insurance. There are advanced stages of prostate cancer, there's glaucoma that went unchecked. I have three guys that are going blind. I have a fabulous, fabulous, last-of-the-real- deal women who's going blind from diabetes — again, because of her living situation, she never even knew she had it — she's now going blind and is very sick

The thing that is so upsetting is, what's the answer for people like this? One of the things I love best that we do — and I wish we had more sponsorship for — is our Jazz in the Schools program. With that, everyone gets a decent little penny for their 45 minutes at the school: a minimum of 200 for the bandleader, 130 for the sidemen - after taxes, it's like 175 and 90. The MPTF — music performance trust fund — sponsors most of the concerts, as does BMI, and local 802 oversees it. It would be great if the record companies and corporations would sponsor this, we'd be employing the same elder musicians in a very dignified way. The kids adore them — they write letters and send pictures. We did 100 in the last year and a half, and added another 20 this spring.

We also started this year with Hohner. Tom Alexios, a writer with Downbeat, got 100 harmonicas donated — he knows I'm a harmonica player. We found the Children's Health Initiative for kids with asthma, and just did our first workshop to strengthen their lungs. I had childhood asthma, and playing the harmonica changed my life. I can breathe fine now. We had a great blues band come, with 55 kids. It was unbelievable, I loved it. It made me so happy.

AAJ: What's on your wish list?

Oxenhorn: We need more corporate sponsorship for employing musicians in the schools. The best way to help anyone is offering them work doing what they love. This also educates and exposes kids to music they may never get to hear live. We had a great singer and a band behind him at middle school — all the kids ran down afterward, wanting autographs. One kid said, "I never heard jazz before, but you're the best jazz musician I've ever heard!" We're hoping to expand the program to museums, parks and office building lobbies for lunch hour concerts.

Jazz in the Schools program is something I'd love to explore, but overall we're basically keeping them from depression, helping them during a crisis moment when they're behind in rent. I didn't do the statistics for this year, but last year [2002] we saved 60 musicians from eviction and homelessness. I know this year it's much more repaired instruments. It's mostly staving off depression and creating a sense of family for someone who is alone and older.

AAJ: What about the jazz residence?

Oxenhorn: We're working on it. It may be a couple of years — matter of fact Jarret Lilian, the president of E-trade, is actually doing some angel work with part of his company. Half the battles we fight are eviction-related. We're looking into the possibility of getting a few corporations together. Right now I have seven musicians that I know are absolutely homeless. We saved about six homes in just the last two months.

AAJ: And the health insurance problem?

Oxenhorn: New York State now has Healthfirst. If you're making up to $9036 — it has to be above the Medicaid level, about $7500 — you can qualify for state-funded family health insurance. We asked them to make a day for us, and just focus on musicians. We did it at Birdland in April, and signed up 50 musicians. The Healthfirst number is 1-866-463-6473. You have to be a resident of the five boroughs of NYC or Long Island. It takes a few months to get on but at least it's something — and it's free, if you qualify.

AAJ: What about all that 9/11 aid that was floating around? I guess it would be difficult for musicians to apply for it since they don't have a "regular" job and can't predict the income they were going to lose.

Oxenhorn: Exactly. And since they usually get paid in cash, it's a real problem.

AAJ: Are musicians in bad financial shape because so many got screwed?

Oxenhorn: What I hear is a lot of stories from years ago when they were in their heyday, in the 60s and 70s. The sidemen got no royalties and no provisions for CDs because they weren't invented yet. That's what I hear a lot of. And if you had your own publishing company, it was looked down on — they wanted you to go with their publishing company.

When I first came into the job, I didn't understand the racism. I had a flower-child mind. Now I feel my heart gets broken with every story I hear about racism. I never heard of anyone who had a great deal — with the exception of BB King and Buddy Guy, that's it for blues. As for jazz, the guys who did television and Broadway or Sesame Street were able to really succeed. The musicians who became household names could always get the festivals in Europe and the bigger clubs in every city, but even there, with no health insurance when they got sick, I've seen several of them go right to ruin — right to ruin — because their medical bills were so unbelievable. If you have a bout with cancer there's $100,000 — and even when you say a household name musician who tours and gigs a lot, we're never talking huge amounts of money. How many tours are you doing, and how many gigs, and how many times can you play the Blue Note in the course of a year? So we're not talking, really, a whole lot, unless people were getting royalties and pensions. A lot of people supplement with teaching and I'm recommending that more and more, and for the younger musicians, the ones who don't have families, I suggest getting a roommate. That's how I survived being in non-profit.

AAJ: Where else does JFA's money come from?

Oxenhorn: Well, our benefit at the Apollo in 2002 raised $190,000. [That was the night that Freddie Hubbard took the stage and announced that JFA had paid his mortgage for four months after his nearly-fatal heart attack, and another musician remembered living on two cans of Slim-Fast a day before he found JFA.] Note: See end of article for details on the CD of that benefit and tickets for the next one.

We do get lucky. Jarret Lilien, the president of E-trade, is on our board now, who's been amazing help to us. He gets all his associates to donate. Then we have Arthur Barnes of HIP, of the New School — he had HIP do a jazz concert at Alice Tully Hall which saved us this year til our Apollo Event. We would've been out of luck. We're building up our board of directors: George Wein, Nat Hentoff, Ahmet Ertegun. It's getting there. Then we have Dr. Frank Forte. In the last seven or eight years, he's seen hundreds of musicians for free at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center's Dizzy Gillespie Institute.

I think to rely on jazz to save jazz is probaby not realistic, but if the musicians who were influenced by jazz and blues, like some of the hiphop people, R&B, Norah Jones — people who are making it today and are doing well — if we had just one person like that donating one concert to the elder jazz musicians, to the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund, it would change the face of our earth here.

As I was leaving, Oxenhorn gave me a copy of Congressional resolution 57, which was introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, in which jazz was officially designated as a "rare and valuable national American treasure." It also notes that "there exists no effective national infrastructure to support and preserve jazz" and resolves to "devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated." Although the resolution was passed by both the House and Senate in 1987, it's hard to tell what, if any, national efforts have been made toward this goal. So while it may not be realistic to "rely on jazz to save jazz," we all need to do our part.

Some ways we can help:

A Great Night in Harlem on Concord Records/Playboy Jazz is a fantastic double CD the label recorded and mixed for free, with all profits going to JFA. It gathers 65 legends together for an intergenerational "family" night of jazz, and includes a four-minute drum solo by Roy Haynes, some spectacular jams, and Tommy Flanagan's Grammy-nominated solo on Ellington's "Sunset and the Mockingbird." It's available online, and on amazon.com.

The next Great Night in Harlem event will be on October 16, 2003. Donor tickets are available from JFA starting at $100; Ticketmaster has seats for $35 and $50.

People can also call the JFA to book a premier jazz band for events or parties, or make a tax-deductible contribution.

JFA phone: 212-245-3999 | Toll free: 1-800-JFA-JAMS

Website: www.jazzfoundation.org

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