is the Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America
, co-founder of Street News
, and a blues harmonica player.
Wendy Oxenhorn was born in Brooklyn, raised in Westchester and attended the School of American Ballet since the age of 10. At age 14, she moved to New York City on her own to dance with New York City Ballet.
When Oxenhorn was 17, a ballet career-ending knee injury drew her into depression when she was told by doctors that if she continued to dance, she would become crippled. This news prompted Oxenhorn to call a suicide hotline where she ended up consoling the counselor on the line, who was herself depressed. Oxenhorn started working at the suicide hotline three days later, thus beginning her career in humanitarian efforts.
In 1990, Oxenhorn co-founded the newspaper, Street News which provided employment and income for a homeless workforce. Oxenhorn recruited Fortune 500 CEOs and celebrities, built the infrastructure from scratch and did all marketing and fundraising for the organization. She succeeded in gaining coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Herald Tribune as well as appearing on talk shows including Regis and Kathy Lee, CBS Nightline, TODAY Show, and others. She was also successful in recruiting powerful donors includingMalcolm Forbes, Cyndi Lauper, Clive Davis, Ben & Jerry, Thomas Mosser, New York Times President Lance Primis, and then White House Chief of Staff, John H. Sununu. At its peak, Street News employed over 2000 homeless men and women in New York City and had a circulation of 250,000. It is credited with being the first homeless sold newspaper, inspiring as many as 150 similar newspapers in major cities throughout the world.
In 1994 Oxenhorn started a Board of Education approved public school program called Children of Substance. Children of Substance was a support group that helped middle school aged girls cope with drug addicted and alcoholic parents. The program placed these girls, who suffered from Bulimia and depression, incest or suicide attempts, and brought them meetings with guest speakers who were adult children of alcoholic parents. These supportive meetings gave these 12 and 13 year old girls the courage to say out loud what was happening to them, to bond with one another and to realize they were no longer alone.
Oxenhorn later began teaching herself harmonica and eventually started playing with an elderly Mississippi blues man who regularly performed in the New York Subway. She busked with him regularly for over a year making no money. She then made possible his first recording which gave them a CD to sell allowing Oxenhorn to earn enough to support her children and quit her day job to play the blues full-time. Oxenhorn credits this experience, along with her non-profit background, with landing her her original position as Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America.
Jazz Foundation of America work
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In 2000 Oxenhorn took over the executive directorship of the Jazz Foundation of America (JFA), which provides assistance to elderly professional jazz and blues musicians in need. At the time, the organization had only $7,000 in its account, handling only 35 clients in a year. Oxenhorn’s fundraising efforts vastly expanded the program to over 500 cases per year. By 2005, it became a national organization, in large part thanks to her Great Night in Harlem fundraiser, which would not have been possible without Jarrett Lilien, the former E*TRADE president, who offered to bankroll the cost of the Apollo Theater and has since become the organization's greatest President..Named after the famed Art Kane photograph, A Great Day in Harlem, Oxenhorn's Great Night in Harlem Concert in the Apollo Theater has been a hugely successful annual fundraising event. The inaugural event was emceed by Bill Cosby and Gil Noble, and featured performances by dozens of prominent jazz musicians. The concert also helped attract prominent board members, including Quincy Jones, their current Chairman; Richard Parsons, Elvis Costello, Danny Glover, Michael Novogratz and Lou Reed. The benefit concert raised $350,000 in its first year, 13 days after 9/11,and has since raised over 26 million dollars for the organization.
Her work at the JFA has included post-Katrina relief efforts for displaced musicians, re-housing and creating instant employment for hundreds of New Orleans musicians which expanded the organizations caseload from 500 to over 5000,and the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program that has kept hundreds of New Orleans musicians afloat for the past 9 years since Katrina. The Foundation's efforts are credited with bringing over 1000 New Orleans musicians back after Katrina by re-housing families and creating employment in their Agnes Varis Jazz and blues in the Schools Program. Oxenhorn also acquired over a quarter million dollars worth of donated new top shelf instruments to replace what was lost in the flood for hundreds of New Orleans' most beloved musicians. As human rights journalist, historian and jazz critic Nat Hentoff explained, “Wendy Oxenhorn launched Jazz in the Schools to create dignified solutions for elderly musicians and to preserve the legacy of jazz by enlisting masters of jazz and blues who are in need of work to play educational performances introducing these public school children to jazz. Since then, the performances have included venues like children’s hospitals and nursing homes." Hentoff also writes: "Wendy Oxenhorn, the foundation's executive director—is the most determined, resilient, and selfless person I have ever known— she has emphasized to me "It's a privilege to be of service to people who spent a lifetime making our world so beautiful with their music and giving us all they had."
Wendy Oxenhorn was honored for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of jazz and blues musicians at the 2004 Grammy Lunch by the Artist Empowerment Coalition (AEC), a non-profit coalition of artists, musicians, performers. Presented by Richard Parsons, CEO Time Warner, along with Prince, Roberta Flack, Mary J. Blige, Danny Glover, Russell Simmons and many other notables.
Wendy Oxenhorn was also honored for her efforts on behalf of jazz and blues musicians by SESAC, WBGO FM radio, Jazz Journalists Association and HBO during the premiere of "The Jazz Baroness" a documentary on the life of Nica Rothschild, who was noted for helping prominent jazz musicians, as a friend and patron in the 50's and 60's. Oxenhorn was since nicknamed "The Barefoot Baroness" by Quincy Jones and Claude Nobs because she took care of musicians like Nica and because she would always take her shoes off when playing the harmonica.
Ms. Oxenhorn has just been made Vice Chairman of the Jazz Foundation. She was also voted onto the board of the Montreux Jazz Festival's Artist Foundation in Switzerland.