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Dennis Irwin's career in Jazz began in 1974 when he moved to New York. He played with Charles Brackeen and later landed his first steady gig in trumpeter Ted Curson's group in 1975. He accompanied such vocalists as Jackie Paris, Betty Carter, Annie Ross, Ann Hampton Callaway, Tania Maria, and Mose Allison. Irwin played with Art Blakey, Chet Baker, and Mel Lewis. He played with Joe Lovano, Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin, and Horace Silver as well as with Brazilian musicians Duduka da Fonseca and Portinho. In the 1990's Irwin began playing with guitarist John Scofield. He can be heard on such Blue Note recordings as "What We Do," "Hand Jive," and "Groove Elation."
In December 2007, without medical insurance and hobbled by back pain, Irwin came to the Jazz Foundation for help. A fellow musician had told us that Dennis needed help and we called him immediately. The team at JFA sent him right to Dr. Forte at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center where he was immediately admitted and received a comprehensive series of tests over the next four days.
"He came to us complaining of back pain," Wendy said. "Two days later, through the grace of Englewood Hospital, he got every test under the sun. We found out he was riddled with fourth-stage cancer. He needed a special procedure that only 2 hospitals on the East Coast performed. This procedure would cost about $140,000. We worked with Englewood and the amazing oncologists were able to convince The University Hospital in Newark to donate the procedure to Dennis free of charge. Since Dennis had no insurance, we worked diligently with a skilled Entitlement Specialist and got him on Medicaid (non HMO) so he could get all the treatment he needed after this. Our social worker, Alisa Hafkin, worked tirelessly on Dennis's behalf and enabled us to help Dennis by providing money for him to take taxis to and from his daily treatments. We were able to help Dennis by paying his rent and providing money for specialty organic foods, and we advocated for him by reaching out to every available musicians aid foundation for help.
"The music is dying sooner than it has to," said Wendy Oxenhorn, Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation. "When people don't have insurance they don't get tested for things." Lovano is confident that his health-conscious friend would have sought preventive care if he were insured. "If he would have had healthcare, he would have gotten checked out sooner," Lovano said. Joe Lovano & John Scofield approached Jazz at Lincoln Center and asked if they could have a benefit for the Jazz Foundation to bring attention to the plight of Dennis Irwin and the hundreds of musicians without healthcare.
Jazz at Lincoln Center generously added this special benefit concert for the Jazz Foundation, entitled "Playing Our Parts", to its annual schedule. This first concert in honor of Dennis was scheduled for March 2008. At this time Dennis was critically ill and in the hospital. Now, everyone who knew Dennis knew he never missed a gig, and Dennis found a way to make this one. He died just hours before the concert, and all in attendance felt his presence. The concert included such luminaries as Tony Bennett, Mose Allison, Wynton Marsalis and Jon Hendricks, in addition to Lovano and Scofield. Irwin's concert raised about $22,000 that year.
Tragedy often spurs calls to act, and in the aftermath of Irwin's death there has been a sense of urgency among many in the jazz community to get medical insurance for artists. The Jazz Foundation offers musicians a broad safety net, often attending to housing, medical care and replacement instruments. The proceeds from the "Playing Our Parts" concert each year allow uninsured musicians to receive a battery of free screenings, from cancer detection to cardiac health assessment, at Englewood Hospital. And the Jazz Foundation works tirelessly to get musicians the help they need.
"Playing Our Parts" Series