“The Bird Song,” composed and performed by Pharoah Sanders.
“Little Red Rooster,” music and lyrics by Willie Dixon, performed by Sugar Blue.
“Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” traditional, sung by Tana Jaro.
Wendy Oxenhorn: These are people that are used to play on Bourbon Street. These are people that are incredibly talented and keeping the real deal stuff alive. And who brings up the younger kids if you don't hear the elders?
Jo Reed: That is the executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America and 2016 NEA Jazz Master, Wendy Oxenhorn. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Wendy Oxenhorn is a soft-spoken force of nature. Trained as a dancer, she turned a career- ending injury into a lifetime of helping other people. Wendy was co-creator of a number of non-profits including Street News – the first newspaper ever created to be sold by homeless people. She also learned to play a mean harmonica and she self-identifies as a bluesman. All of this led to a job at the Jazz Foundation of America whose mission is to provide jazz and blues musicians with financial, medical, housing, and legal assistance as well as to create performance opportunities for them.
When Wendy Oxenhorn began working there in the year 2000, the JFA had a minuscule budget and a local focus in New York City . By 2005, due to the work of Wendy, the foundation – now with a full-time staff – expanded its outreach throughout the country. Since 2001, Wendy Oxenhorn has raised more than $30 million through events like the now annual concert, “A Great Night in Harlem." Her fundraising efforts has enabled the JFA to increase the organization’s capacity to provide emergency assistance to more than 5,000 cases annually. The JFA was pivotal in helping musicians in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; finding housing, creating employment opportunities, and replacing instruments for more than 1,000 displaced musicians.
Wendy Oxenhorn created the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools programs, which enables hundreds of musicians to perform blues and jazz for more than 80,000 public school students each year.
As you can tell, the woman is non-stop – a creative and fierce advocate for musicians. Which is why Wendy Oxenhorn can now add 2016 NEA Jazz Master to her list of honors.
Like all of us, Wendy’s path is hardly a straight line. Here she is remembering back to when she was seventeen and by happenstance, found a new life outside of dance.
Wendy Oxenhorn: They said I’d be crippled by the time I was thirty if I continued. So, that was … that was devastating. And I was a pretty dramatic kid. I remember just thinking that there’s no reason to live any more. And I called up a suicide hotline because I just was that low. And the woman on the other end of the line was in her fifties and she just started telling me her troubles, you know? And most people used to. I even had cab drivers – it was like confession every time I’d get in a taxi. And she started telling me her troubles and I started counseling her and three days later I was working at the hotline. It was wonderful. It was the cure for all of my depression because I completely got lost in people’s problems and I didn’t have time to think about my own. And that’s what started this whole next half of my life.
Jo Reed: Odyssey <Laughs>. You worked at the suicide hotline and you did a number of nonprofits that you created: Children In Need, Street News, Children of Substance. Were you able to support yourself working at these organizations? I know you’re a single mom. New York – it’s crazy now, but it’s always been expensive.
Wendy Oxenhorn: <Laughs> I have a joke; I wrote a book, and the joke was the title was going to be, You Can Have a Big Life Too on $8 a Day. But yeah, no, single parenting in New York City is hard and running charities. What I did was I ran a boarding house out of my apartment and that’s how I got the rent paid so I was able to do and start these smaller charities. I didn’t do anything alone, you know. You always have wonderful people, you know.
Jo Reed: Before you ended up at the Jazz Foundation of America, you had an interesting time on the subways of New York City. How did you find the blues?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh, I like to think the blues found me. I was bit by the blues from the time I was a kid. And then there used to be this man who played in the subway that I would always stop and listen to. And he would always call to me and say, “Come on blues lady,” you know, “Come and sing.” And believe me, I cannot sing. <Laughs>.
Jo Reed: And this is you as ‘grown-up Wendy?’
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes, this is me with a kid in the stroller. And so what happened was I had a love affair with this incredible Italian composer and singer that ended tragically, of course, because he was an Italian composer<Laughs>. What do you think would happen? But one day, during my Italian love affair, he had a harmonica sitting there and he was making some pasta because he was really from Italy. And I picked up the harmonica and Sugar Blue was on a CD playing, “Little Red Rooster.”
And it happened to be the right key and I just started fiddling around. And he turned around, you know, and he was like, “Baby, you got something.” And I was like – I don’t know what I had. At first, I was terrible. But I had that feeling in me just like the ballet, just like dance. And I lit up like a kid at Christmas and I took it home with me. And, of course, you know, it got tragic after that. So everything went into my harmonica.
Jo Reed: And the blues became very appropriate <laughs>.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, this is so amazing how life is, you know. Every time something – just like with the dance, look what happened my life turned around. And then just like with the Italian composer and big love going to hell, I had this beautiful gift come from it that to be honest with you, the blues meant more to me than anything at that moment.
Jo Reed: How did you learn to play the harp? Did you play along with other CDs?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I would get on the express trains at 96th Street on the Number Three. I would get between the cars and I’d have Muddy Waters in my head on an iPod and I would just start playing. I’d hold on to the handle between the cars with one hand. And – because between the cars no one can hear you. So you’re whizzing down and I would play my heart out. And then I would cross the platform and go back. And I would do for about three hours a day.
Jo Reed: Could you hear yourself?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh gosh, no. But at least no one else could. Good thing <laughs>! But I was able to, you know, feel it. And then late at night when the kids were asleep and a roommate was home I would go to the platform at 103rd Street and Broadway because the acoustics were amazing. You didn’t need amplification. And I would play my heart out there after 11, 11:30 when I wasn’t disturbing anyone. I’d go by the tunnel, by the entrance and just stand on the last part of the platform and play my heart out. And then one day that same old blues man from Mississippi was where and I looked at him –
Jo Reed: And that’s Floyd Lee.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Floyd Lee, formerly known as Ted Williams. And I flashed my harmonica to him. And he came over and he laughed and he hit his leg and said, “We are going to make goo-gobs of money.” And all he meant was there was going to be a little blonde in a dress that could go get the tip bucket. That’s really what he meant. And so I never learned to play whole songs. And I never played filler. I’d take my solo and then I’d go get the money. <laughs> But we did pretty well.
Jo Reed: I bet.
Wendy Oxenhorn: That was my – it wasn’t my start of fundraising, but it didn’t hurt it.
Jo Reed: And can you think about what you learned from him musically?
Wendy Oxenhorn: He was so real deal. Playing in the train stations probably was the greatest master class I could ever get because it wasn’t about perfection. There were all sorts of things that would happen and you just would go with it because it was blues. You’d make enough money-- I remember I recorded us in the train station and it was the first real CD he had of like his live music, what he really does. And we were making like 200 bucks a piece at rush hour. I’d be home in time to feed the kids. I taught them to count on the money. You know what, they thought we were rich. It was so wonderful, mama would come home with all of these $1 bills. <laughs> And I wouldn’t have to pay a babysitter for any late night clubs. I have so many funny memories – discretion doesn’t allow me to say. <laughs>
Jo Reed: What happened to the subway gig?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I was kicked out of the band.
Jo Reed: What happened?
Wendy Oxenhorn: He got himself girlfriend who just didn’t want another woman in the band. So it was really the blues. There was one blues moment where, you know, I think she’s going to cut me. And he said, “Baby, you’ve got to go.” <laughs> But that’s how I found this job. So should I segue into that?
Jo Reed: Yeah, I really want that segue. It’s a great story.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Okay. You know, I was sitting in a café, again, depressed as hell <laughs> but I didn’t call suicide hotlines anymore now. I just would play – play the blues. And a friend walked by, who had seen me playing in the subway station, and she knew my charitable past. And she said, “You know, I saw this ad for this foundation that takes care of old jazz musicians who have fallen on hard times.” Well, actually, I think she only said old jazz because at that point it was just jazz. And I called them up. And when I told them my history, when I told them I played harmonic in the train station with an old man from Mississippi he got up and he shook my head and he said, “You’ve got the job.” And later I found out I was the only one who showed up for the job <laughs>. How’s that for miraculous?
Jo Reed: I think it’s the way life works, actually.
Wendy Oxenhorn: And it never would have happened had I stayed playing with my beautiful old man from Mississippi.
Jo Reed: Wendy, a little bit about the jazz Foundation of America, if you don't mind.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes.
Jo Reed: When you started, it was really more of a local organization, I think it's pretty fair to say. And everybody working as hard as they can, but how many people were they able to help and what was the budget like?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, it was this wonderful older man, Herb Storfer, who had a really formed the Jazz Foundation with Ann Ruckert, Phoebe Jacobs, Billy Taylor, Cy Blank. And of course then Jimmy Owens, Vishnu Wood, and Jamil Nasser, came to them and said "Hey, there are musicians out there that are in trouble,” and that's when they changed the focus.
Jo Reed: And what had been the focus?
Wendy Oxenhorn: It had just been to promote and keep jazz alive. And then it really began, and then of course Dr. Frank Forte and the Englewood Hospital that took care of Dizzy and started treating musicians for free – that doesn't come along every day, that man is a saint. It was really Herb Storfer in his apartment pulling money out of his pocket, and helping. And he would give them a couple of month's rent, and he was helping about 35 musicians a year.
Jo Reed: Wendy, how did you grow the organization?
Wendy Oxenhorn: You know, I'm just a good workaholic, that's all <laughs>. And, you know, I came in, and this amazing young woman who had just graduated from Vassar, Lauren. And she was like 10 men rolled up in one. She came a year after I started and together we really built it up. And now we have this amazing staff. We also got—my second year there – we got Jarrett Lilien who was – he was not the president of E-Trade yet, he was just this amazingly goodhearted man who was on his way up somewhere. When we asked who had money, they told me, they told me, "Well, there's this guy we know named Jarrett Lilien," because, you know, we had $7000 in the bank. Did I forget to mention that? You know, they offered me this great job and then tell me, “We have $7000 in the bank." So I started for free, and then I met Jarrett and recruited him onto the board. And he had wanted to be on the board, he was wonderful. And then I met Dick Parsons and that's another amazing story. He was CEO of Time Warner at the time. And I think he was their first African-American CEO. And everyone said "He loves jazz. You've got to get this guy." So I wrote to him, and as I was writing the letter, Lauren came in with a letter for me, and it was from him. And there was a check in it, and he had read some article in the New York Times that had been published about us, and he said "I want to help." And he became our interim chairman. I knew he was busy, so I asked him to be our interim chairman. And he's been that for 11 years now <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Let’s talk about some of the reasons jazz musicians end up in need. And I know for the most part we’re not talking about established artists – it’s sidemen, it’s pickup musicians. I know finding work can be hard, but then you do and, you know, the hours are long, touring is difficult –
Wendy Oxenhorn: The road is brutal. The road is truly brutal. And when you look at some of these musicians who have been doing it for thirty, forty, fifty years, it wears you down. It wears you down. And this business really doesn’t take care of the music makers. You know, it never really has. In most cases, as far as pay – all of these great old legends that did recordings – even with Frank Sinatra. You would get that one-time buyout for the album. You know, your day of recording, you get 300, you figured that’s great, you’ll pay the rent, and then you would never get any royalty. The record could sell millions and you never got anything further. Usually, only the band leader got a royalty.
Jo Reed: They don’t have control over their music.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Exactly. Or intellectual property for that matter. I know so many people who wrote songs or co-wrote songs and other people took the publishing. You know, a producer took the publishing, a manager took the publishing and then they’d end up with nothing. I mean talking household famous songs, things that made the Rolling Stones famous. You know, we’ve had lots of that. And I’ll give a good example. One of my favorite people in the world was Jimmy Norman. And Jimmy Norman used to run Sweet Water back in the day with Chet Baker and everyone playing there. Everyone came through there. He was also one of The Coasters for 30 years. He was also Bob Marley’s first producer and helped Bob Marley to become Bob Marley. He was the first one making his first breakout album. And he wrote some of the first songs with him. He never benefited from that. He also co-wrote “Time is on My Side”, which made the Rolling Stones famous. And in the beginning he was credited, but his partner was the one who took the publishing and he never saw a minute of that. And when he was in his seventies after a triple bypass he couldn’t tour with The Coasters anymore. And we found out that he was about to be evicted and I went to court with him. And the lawyer for the landlord when I told him who this guy is he goes, “I love the Rolling Stones. I love Bob Marley.” He said, “We can’t let his happen.” So we got him out of that. And then I had gotten a couple of young musicians – we always partner young musicians with the elders because beautiful things blossom from that and these great relationships blossomed and he ended up helping all of these kids with their recordings. But while we were cleaning his apartment we found a cassette of him and Bob Marley in his apartment in the Bronx in the seventies recording tunes and writing tunes that had never been heard, never saw the light of day. So it ended selling – through a friend of his, Frank Beacham [ph?] – It ended up selling at Christie’s. Of course, we made him pay the rent for the next two years. And then he got himself an editing suite and he made his own version of “Time is on My Side.” Julie Collins picked it up. He got a huge breakout article in the Times explaining his story. It was wonderful.
Jo Reed: Tell me what went into your thinking about creating the program, Jazz in Schools – a creative, brilliant, and just obvious idea all at the same time.
Wendy Oxenhorn: It’s so important that when we have this moment to help someone that we think of the most creative solutions that are dignified. You know, Jazz in the Schools program and blues in the schools that allow everyone to perform for the kids. They’re maybe too old or too ill to go on tour anymore or to handle a 3-hour gig at a club, but they can do a 45-minute concert for the kids and the kids run up and ask for autographs. And they’ve got a reason to get out of the house, again. They’re loved again. And they also get paid so they can pay their own rent. These are the kinds of solutions we try to work on the most.
Jo Reed: And how many kids it’s the first time they’ve ever heard a live performance?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I’m so glad you brought up because that’s hard to believe, but kids don’t hear live music anymore. They watch it on YouTube or they hear it in headphones. And that’s the other point to bring up that is so important that now that we are all on these devices, our lives are becoming very isolated. You used to go out and hear music. You know, you would meet people. You would have that connection. You would have that fabulous feeling of excitement. And you’d be moved by the music and we were all in this together.
Jo Reed: There’s something about that community – a group of people coming together to hear a performance – that is, I think, very magical.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Completely.
Jo Reed: In some ways, it’s almost like our secular church.
Wendy Oxenhorn: It is. That’s what we call it. When you are there, things happen. There is this spiritual connection that happens between people. And when you watch it on the tube or on the computer, it’s just not the same. So it’s a great point you make and that’s the problem because live music now, the clubs can’t sustain themselves. And as a result there’s not a whole lot of pay that’s happening. Someone had said to me that they were starting these spaces in Brooklyn and – I’m sure now they’re not even affordable – but musicians would come and they would just hang in these spaces and just to be able to create because the gigs weren’t happening. The paying gigs, the clubs weren’t happening. So people might have been stuck at home rehearsing, practicing, trying to create but without the juice of the other people without the magic it’s not the same.
Jo Reed: No.
Wendy Oxenhorn: And you can’t be brought up, your own level can’t be brought up. I was lucky enough to find that great older blues man in the subway station who was able to bring me up.
Jo Reed: You are marvelous in many ways, but part of it is the connections you make with people – both within the jazz community, but outside the jazz community – and that outreach is something you've done throughout your entire career, working for non-profits.
Wendy Oxenhorn: I'm just lucky, I'm telling you it's just luck. You know why? When you do what you say you do, the money follows and the way opens. I mean for example, when Katrina happened, look how that fell into place. Oh, I wrote to this woman, Agnes Varis, and invited her to this affair we were having with Dick Parsons, and she said yes. And that night, I said to her "You know, with what happened in Katrina, there are over 1000 musicians that are displaced to 38 states. They have no way to get back home, they have no way to pay new rents, the landlords won't even take them because they have no check stubs from Bourbon Street. They have no way to prove they had an income. So if we could put them to work in the schools," and she said, "Write me a letter." And I wrote her a letter, the next day she gave us a quarter of a million dollars and we started putting musicians right away to work. Because of Jarrett and E-Trade, we were able to house people right away and get them into homes, paying first month's rent and security. We were working about 20 hours a day at that point. You know, and we just started helping people.
Jo Reed: When you started at the Jazz Foundation of America, what do you think the biggest need jazz musicians had? And has it shifted at all, as the foundation has done more work?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, I noticed that 9/11 hurt the club scene in a lot of ways. There used to be a big restaurant scene –
Jo Reed: And you started in the year 2000, just so we have our history straight?
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes. So it was a year later. There was a big restaurant scene, and they would always pay musicians 50 bucks, 75 bucks per musician, to play in the restaurant. And when 9/11 happened, the restaurants all closed down, no one was going out. People couldn't stay open and they certainly couldn't afford to have music, because no one was going out, for a few months. And what was happening was, the older musicians said "Hey, we've been with you for years. We understand now, we know what it's like. We’ll just pass the basket." And a lot of places didn't want to go back to paying, after that.
Jo Reed: When the business picked up?
Wendy Oxenhorn: When the business picked up again. And that's still the case. Very few places pay like they used to. So that really hurt, you know?
Jo Reed: Yeah and as you said, jazz clubs aren’t doing so well either.
Wendy Oxenhorn: I know so many genuinely, jazz music loving, club owners where they're not making a dime and they keep it alive. I know so many wonderful small clubs that truly sacrifice their lives for this, you know. I watch it all the time.
Jo Reed: And their rents are so high.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Oh, it's insane. But again, people are not going out to hear music like they used to. And this is the only thing that would make the difference. But, you know, you have except life on life's terms. And, you know, this is the way it is. So you know, like Quincy says, "We have come up with other ways to make money off of intellectual property on the Internet. You have to change with the times. You can't wish for it to be the way it was. But I've heard a lot of musicians are moving out to Detroit; that it's becoming quite a scene, and it's quite inexpensive. There are things that are happening out there, you know.
Jo Reed: Wendy, one thing you did about a year after you started, was a big concert at the Apollo, called "A Great Night in Harlem", which has now become a yearly event. What did you have in mind? Had you ever produced anything remotely like that? And how did you pay for it?
Wendy Oxenhorn: <Laughs> Like I said, I'm a lucky girl. You know, and determination is a beautiful thing. So, I was trying to learn more about jazz, because I really knew nothing, okay? I mean, like really nothing. So I rented the DVD for "A Great Day in Harlem," because I thought, "That has all the jazz greats, I'll learn something." And while I was watching it, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to have all the current jazz greats, all these legends, and have a Great Night in Harlem. And where else but at the Apollo?” So at the time the Apollo rent was like 15,000, so I went to our amazing E-Trade man, Jarrett Lilien. I said "Look it's 15,000 to rent it, I think we can do this." And, he said "Okay, I got your back." So the board members – they all wanted it to happen but we didn't believe we can ever get 15,000 in those days. You know, I was just starting out and we had very little money –
Jo Reed: You had $7,000.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes. So I just started putting the word out and honestly, I don't even remember, and I remember finding at the time, who was it? And it was just musician after musician started saying "Yes" and I said "Could you bring someone to the table?" We had Hank Jones, we had Ahmad Jamal, we had Joanne Brackeen, we had Ron Carter. I mean we just had just about everyone, I think it was 100 people – Abbey Lincoln, I mean Freddy Hobart. But it was just everyone you could think of, and they all came out and it happened in nine weeks. And we did take a picture on stage that we called "A Great Night in Harlem," with everybody and John Abbott took that and it was beautiful. But basically, that's how it happened, and it happened 13 days after 9/11.
Jo Reed: That was my next question.
Wendy Oxenhorn: 13 days after 9/11 and the house was packed, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. And we made 350,000 without a dinner, you know, just the concert and that is what got us rolling. And we started helping 300 musicians a year, then we started helping 500 musicians a year, we now had a part-time social worker. It just grew from there, it was very beautiful.
Jo Reed: How many musicians a year would you say the Jazz Foundation helps now?
Wendy Oxenhorn: I don't know a year, but I know this; I know we average about 25 to 30 individual cases a day. We also do 5000, or 6000 emergency assists a year, all over the country, and sometimes even around the world now.
Jo Reed: Wendy I want you to make one wish, one big wish, for the Jazz Foundation.
Wendy Oxenhorn: For any billionaire who is out there, and I mean this really with my heart, is to build a player's residence. Because these people are aging out in basement apartments, rent controlled apartments, alone. And, an apartment building, you know, even if it was for 100 people or 50 people and they had each other and the buses of tourists would come by once a night. There would be jams every night, and they just would be with each other. And there would be social workers and then there would be a floor for when you need assisted-living, so you don't go to the state run nursing home. My goodness, when Odetta feel and broke her hip and she was at a nursing home with someone screaming all night next to her. I mean this should just not be for people who have given us this much joy, and made the world this beautiful. They should have their own place. So I'm just putting that out there with a little passion, to anyone who might be able to contribute towards something like that. It's Wendy@jazzfoundation.org is the email <laughs>.
Jo Reed: Wendy, thank you for giving me your time, which I know you have precious little of –
Wendy Oxenhorn: I do want to shout out to the NEA for this moment. Because I have to tell you, and it makes me wanna cry, but I have not stopped since I took the job. And you don’t get a chance to really look back or take anything in. You’re always on to the next emergency. So I just want to thank them for this opportunity to shed some light on the work we do, and the need out there, for these great people who-- they took us through our lives these people, they played in the background of everything we've done, you know, in our own little movies every day. And it's just so beautiful to be able to-- and it's such an honor and a privilege to be able to help them in their times of darkness, you know? They represent freedom to me. They’re the freedom fighters of this world.
Jo Reed: I think we’re all so lucky that you’re doing what you do.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Well, I don’t do it alone. It’s a “we”.
Jo Reed: It's a "We", like jazz.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Yes, exactly.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
Wendy Oxenhorn: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was 2016 NEA Jazz Master and executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, Wendy Oxenhorn. We’re ending with the song, Poor Wayfaring Stranger, sung by Tana Jaro, at Wendy’s request. Wendy plays it when one of the jazz musicians passed because it allows her to experience their spirit being guided back home. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.