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The Jazz Foundation of America (JFA) is committed to providing jazz and blues musicians with financial, medical, housing, and legal assistance as well as performance opportunities, with a special focus on the elderly and veterans who have paid their dues and find themselves in crisis due to illness, age and/or circumstance. JFA achieves its mission through compassionate and personalized social work care that restores dignity and hope to their clients. JFA is saving jazz and blues “one musician at a time.”
For 26 years, the Jazz Foundation has been the only national organization dedicated to saving the homes and lives of elder jazz and blues musicians in crisis – musicians who have made our world richer through their music. JFA has grown to support over 5,000 cases a year with emergency assistance and work opportunities. Every day, the foundation helps clients in need who often have nowhere else to turn: their Emergency Assistance program keeps the electricity on, the rent or mortgage paid, and food on the table, in addition to counseling and referrals for pro bono services. The foundation helps to reestablish a musician’s sense of dignity and purpose through performance opportunities with our Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools program which brings music to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and other venues throughout the country. We also save lives through our partnership with Englewood Hospital and Medical Center doctors and staff who have been serving JFA clients for 21 years. With this network of caring professionals, JFA social workers provide crucial services that keep many of these accomplished music veterans alive and productive, doing what they love to do – play music.
In 1989, co-founders Herb Storfer, Ann Ruckert, Cy Blank, Phoebe Jacobs and Dr. Billy Taylor had a simple vision: to create an organization dedicated to preserving the history and future of jazz and to promote jazz, in all its shapes and forms, to the public.
Thanks to three established jazz musicians – Jamil Nasser, Jimmy Owens and Vishnu Wood – it was brought to the attention of the group that there was no one out there taking care of elder jazz musicians in crisis. So many of them were without health insurance, pension plans or any savings, since most recordings never paid royalties, just one time buy outs which didn’t pay much. Nasser, Owens and Wood became the organization’s outreach network, connecting musicians in need of rent money or medical payments to the founders.
For many years, Herb Storfer ran the organization out of his loft home, serving as founding President, Chairman and volunteer Executive Director, recruiting Board members, and steering it through its formative years. Musicians knew that they could just drop by Herb's place, and they'd be taken care of.
When the Jazz Foundation of America (JFA) became incorporated in 1990, the founders recruited a Board of Directors made up of friends, associates and supportive acquaintances – including Dr. Leo Corbie, James Briggs Murray, Sandy Jordan, Stella Marrs and Bill Wurtzel – who offered in-kind services, gave advice and volunteered time. The Board soon realized that the most pressing need in the jazz community was to establish emergency help for jazz musicians who had fallen on hard times.
In 1991, they held a fundraising event called "The Fine Art of Jazz" at Town Hall with the help of Earl Davis, son of modernist painter Stuart Davis, in conjunction with The Stuart Davis Centennial Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The concert featured three great jazz pianists – Dick Hyman, George Shearing, and Dorothy Donegan – and a silent auction included artwork from renowned artists such as Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg and Stuart Davis. The event raised over $60,000, allowing JFA to establish the Jazz Musicians’ Emergency Fund in early 1992.
Lionel Hampton served as Honorary Chairman of the Benefit Committee which included Tony Bennett, Ruth Ellington, Ahmet Ertegun, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Lenny Kravitz, Peggy Lee, Wynton Marsalis and Dave Sanborn. The orginal JFA Advisory Board included Roberta Flack, Mona & Milt Hinton, Teo Macero, Wynton Marsalis, Marian McPartland, Bucky Pizzarelli and Phil Schaap.
Over the years, the Jazz Foundation began to network with other service organizations who shared similar objectives — the Actor’s Fund and MusiCares provided part-time social workers for JFA’s substance abuse programs. The JFA also began their Monday Night Jam sessions as a way of recruiting musicians in need. These jam sessions took place in the basement of St. Peter’s Church and continue to take place to this day at the Local 802 building in midtown Manhattan.
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 for free at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Dr. Frank Forte and Dr. Bob Litwick headed up the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund and JFA began referring clients to the hospital for treatment; a beautiful partnership was born. Since 1994, Englewood's network of generous pro bono doctors has grown and provided free medical care worth over five million dollars to over 1,000 veteran jazz musicians.
When Herb Storfer and his wife Muriel decided to move north, the Jazz Foundation could no longer be run from his home. With $7,000 left in the Fund, the Foundation moved into a one-room office in the Local 802 branch of the American Federation of Musicians.
In 2000, Wendy Oxenhorn accepted the position of Executive Director (and sole employee) and took the organization from assisting 35 musicians a year to over 150 in a matter of months. She revived JFA’s waning accounts by creating a fundraising gala at the Apollo Theater called "A Great Night in Harlem." (The name of the event was inspired by the documentary "A Great Day in Harlem" about the famous photo "Harlem 1958" by Art Kane.) With backing from the Jazz Foundation's newest board member and Knight in Shining Armour, E*TRADE's COO Jarrett Lilien, the fundraiser was a success, raising $350,000. Even though it took place just 13 days after the tragedy of 9/11, the house was packed. It was the first concert in 50 years to bring jazz back to the Apollo, and over 75 jazz legends came out to perform.
"A Great Night in Harlem," which became an annual tradition and the Foundation's only major fundraising event, has been hosted by celebrities Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase, Danny Glover, Danny Aiello, Branford Marsalis, Mario & Melvin Van Peebles and Joe Piscopo. Performers have included Odetta, Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, Irma Thomas, Lou Reed, George Benson, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Roy Haynes, Ahmed Jamal, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Davell Crawford, Regina Carter, Elvis Costello, Arturo O'Farrill, Ray Barretto, Candido Camero, Sweet Georgia Brown, Norah Jones, Hank Jones, Jimmy Heath, Paul Shaffer, Abbey Lincoln, Stanley Jordan, Cassandra Wilson and more.
The Jazz Foundation navigated hundreds of musicians through the aftermath of 9/11. When many club dates, restaurant performances, concerts, festivals and tours were canceled, JFA assisted by paying mortgages and utilities. Wendy would also call up local clubs and set up performances for musicians who needed work. As word of the services spread, the JFA's case load expanded to over 500 cases a year and more staff were hired.
It was Wendy's vision to provide meaningful employment for the living legends who were coming to the Foundation for help and to give them a sense of purpose in their everyday lives. In 2001, with a grant from Music Performance Trust Funds and corporate sponsorship from BMI, Wendy launched Jazz in the Schools, a program that preserves the legacy of jazz by enlisting elder masters of jazz and blues who are in need of work to play educational performances introducing public school children to jazz. Since then the program has expanded to include venues like children's hospitals and nursing homes.
Jarrett Lilien and E*TRADE FINANCIAL also stepped up to the plate to start the first Musicians Emergency Housing Fund, which allowed JFA to pay rents and mortgages, keeping hundreds of elderly musicians, who had fallen behind due to illness or age, from eviction and homelessness. In 2002, Jarrett became the first president of the Jazz Foundation board.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Jazz Foundation helped find housing and employment for over 1,000 displaced musicians – many of them younger but supporting families with young children. The staff traveled to New Orleans to work face-to-face with musicians. Many had lost their instruments, their sole tool for creating and sharing their art as well as earning income. Wendy met an angel from the Music and Arts Center who provided over $250,000 worth of donated top-shelf brass instruments to replace those lost in the flood after the storm. Beethoven Pianos donated 30 pianos, even providing legends like Fats Domino and Eddie Bo with new pianos just weeks after the storm. Yamaha gave us incredible drum kits for less than cost, and we were able to help such legends as Shannon Powell, The Treme Brass Band, and so many others to receive replacement drum kits that were of the highest quality.
Then, the face of our Earth changed when we met "Saint" Agnes Varis. Thanks to a one million dollar gift from pharmaceutical industry pioneer and celebrated philanthropist Dr. Agnes Varis (with a little help from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Dick Parsons/Time Warner, and the band Pearl Jam), JFA was able to apply the same "Jazz in the Schools" solution to the Katrina situation. Thus began the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program which has since created over 9,000 performance opportunities across the country and dramatically affected the lives of more than 1,000 musicians, making it possible for hundreds to survive after Katrina and after the economic collapse we have been battling in this country.
In 2007, Dick Parsons (Chairman of Citigroup and former Chairman & CEO of TimeWarner) became Chairman of the Jazz Foundation Board, and Dr. Agnes Varis ("Saint Agnes") became our Vice Chairwoman.
In 2009, the Jazz Foundation celebrated 20 years of being the first and only national organization dedicated to saving the homes and lives of elder jazz and blues musicians in crisis. JFA now operates with 3 full-time and 3 part-time staff and averages 1,600 cases a year as it continues on its mission of "saving jazz and blues, one musician at a time."