Art Works Blog

Musical Playlist with 2016 NEA Jazz Master Wendy Oxenhorn

Wendy Oxenhorn loves music. Since she’s the recipient of the 2016 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, you kind of expect that. And as executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America (JFA)—which is, as their motto puts it, “saving jazz and blues…one musician at a time” by providing financial, medical, housing, and legal assistance, as well as performance opportunities—her deep love for the music and the people that make it is evident.

Before Oxenhorn became the head of JFA, she was working as a musician herself—in the New York City subway. Teaching herself blues harmonica, she teamed up with an elderly bluesman from Mississippi, Floyd Lee, and played for tips. This experience directly led to her joining JFA in 2000.

We asked Oxenhorn to share with with us some of her favorite music, in her own words.

Here’s my musical story—(some of) the music and artists who have gotten me through life:

The Blues: Billie Holiday, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, John Hammond, and John Campbell saved me. John Campbell, who died just as he was becoming famous, was one of the greatest blues guitar players who walked the earth. At age 15 in Texas, he used to sell his his blood to buy guitar strings. Later in life, Lightning Hopkins sold him his old guitar because he thought the kid had something great. This is a moment of him playing Jazzfest in New Orleans pre-Katrina—he would have laughed himself to the floor to know I ended up picking up the harmonica and playing the train stations in NYC.

Manno Charlemagne: A little-known singer/composer/guitarist from Haiti, who is exiled for political reasons. He has one of the most romantic voices, yet all of his music is political. I call him the Charles Aznavour of Haiti.

Abbey Lincoln: Just so you see what jazz and Abbey were doing in the early ‘60s while the Beatles were singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand." This is called "Driva Man" with Max Roach, Clifford Jordan on sax, Coleridge Perkinson on piano, and Eddie Kahn on bass. Abbey was the first to let her hair go natural and is credited with popularizing the afro. We at the JFA were privileged to be of assistance to Abbey the last few years of her life.

Chet Baker: If I had only been born sooner, I would have helped Chet too. But I didn’t have the job yet!

Nina Simone: There are no words to describe her voice and music—and where she was able to fly—except maybe to say that I have never heard anyone cover her tunes successfully.

Big Bands from the 1920s and ‘30s: I listen to them all day long when I want to travel back in time and bring back the era I wish I hadn’t missed. This early jazz from the past helps me live in the now (cigarette holder, please).

“Nature Boy”: It’s the greatest song I ever learned. Here’s a special version of it at the JFA Apollo Theater show. It was my “message to the people” sung from up in the balcony box seat by Italian singer/composer Francesco Pini with the great bassist Bob Cranshaw. 

And how can I not end with this? Here’s Peggy Lee with “Is That All There Is?”

Be sure to join us on arts.gov at April 4, 2016 at 8pm ET for the 2016 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert celebrating Wendy Oxenhorn and fellow 2016 NEA Jazz Masters Archie Shepp, Gary Burton, and Pharoah Sanders!

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