NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Wendy Oxenhorn

NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Wendy Oxenhorn

"This award means so much to me because jazz is deep, a music born out of the deepest struggle of all: the inhuman atrocities that man inflicted upon man. I dedicate this award to the people who suffered to create this gift of love and light for a weary world in need of healing."

Wendy Oxenhorn is the executive director and vice chairman of the Jazz Foundation of America (JFA), which 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.” She has held the position at JFA, headquartered in New York City, since 2000.  

At age 10, Oxenhorn attended the School of American Ballet and danced with New York City Ballet. At 17, she suffered a career-ending knee injury that catapulted her into depression, leading to her calling a suicide hotline. She ended up consoling the counselor on the line, who herself was depressed. Oxenhorn began working at the suicide hotline three days later, prompting her to make helping others her professional focus.

In 1990, she co-founded Street News, a publication that provided employment and income for homeless individuals in New York City and that inspired more than 150 similar papers in major cities around the world. In 1994, she launched Children of Substance, a public school program that created support groups for female middle school students with drug-addicted parents.

Six years later, she moved on to JFA, which was founded in 1989 by Billy Taylor, Herb Storfer, Ann Ruckert, and Phoebe Jacobs, originally with a local focus on New York City. By 2005, due to the work of Oxenhorn, the foundation expanded to nationwide operations with a full-time staff. Since 2001, she has raised more than $30 million through events like the now annual “A Great Night in Harlem." Her fundraising efforts enabled the JFA to increase the organization’s capacity to provide emergency assistance from 35 to more than 5,000 cases annually.

The JFA participated on multiple levels in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina relief: finding new housing; creating employment opportunities for more than 1,000 displaced New Orleans musicians and their children; and acquiring new musical instruments to replace those lost in the flood waters. In late 2005, Oxenhorn created the Agnes Varis Jazz in the Schools Program. The program’s goals are to create dignified work opportunities for ill as well as unemployed and underemployed musicians of retirement age and introduce the music to new audiences. This program has enabled hundreds of musicians to participate in blues and jazz performances for more than 80,000 public school students across approximately 15 states each year.

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 nonprofit coalition of artists, musicians, and performers. She was also honored by SESAC, WBGO FM radio, the Jazz Journalists Association, and HBO. In 2015, Jazz at Lincoln Center honored her with the Ashley Schiff Ramos Community Development in Jazz Award. She also serves on the board of directors of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and is a blues harmonica player.