Among the thousands of victims devastated by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria last year, elderly professional musicians were especially hard hit. They lost everything, from their homes to their precious instruments. Regular gigs that kept them solvent were cancelled – indefinitely.
The Jazz Foundation of America stepped in, and thanks to its efforts and its fundraising, many of these older musicians are getting back on their feet. Some have relocated (as far away as New York), others are back on the road playing a set of new shows. Medical bills and rent checks have been paid, furniture, instruments and cars replaced – all done discreetly.
2017 was their busiest year ever helping older musicians, so right now Grammy-winning producer and drummer Steve Jordan (read about him here) is gearing up to boost the Foundation’s profile and finances with their annual April fundraiser at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Jordan, 61, started organizing the fundraisers five years ago after discovering the Foundation was helping one of his closest friends.
“It’s the best kept secret in the world. I had no idea. I’d never heard of them. The most impressive thing is the way they take care of musicians with discretion and dignity,” says Jordan, who has worked with BB King, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and John Mayer. Even with Quincy Jones and Danny Glover on the advisory board, the Foundation remains under the radar.
Set up 27 years ago with just a handful of volunteers, the New York-based non-profit has rapidly expanded since 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, raising $30 million and employing 12 full-time staff, alongside an army of professionals providing pro bono services.
Despite the group’s discretion, Fats Domino was more than happy to sing the Foundation’s praises when it arranged a replacement for the precious piano he’d lost in Katrina. He even put on an impromptu show, playing “Blueberry Hill” on his storm-ravaged drive to the delight of the deliverymen.
“That was proof to me of the joy of the foundation,” says Steve, “We actually get to individuals and get them assistance. The money doesn’t get caught up in bureaucracy, it gets right to the people.” For instance, in 2003 they found Blues singer Sweet Georgia Brown a new home and a series of well-paying gigs after fire destroyed her apartment and she was forced to sleep at New York’s Penn Station with her disabled 12-year-old granddaughter.
Last year the Foundation helped 1000 musicians, including singer Sinead O’Connor, tracking her down to a rundown New Jersey motel and arranging medical help after she posted a suicidal video on Facebook. The Foundation had staff on the ground in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Often, though, they work closer to their Manhattan office, helping struggling musicians with medical care, rent payments and jobs.
Jordan believes the problems are getting worse. “We have so many issues in the digital age, severe issues with royalties,” he says. “Jazz musicians, especially, are not making any money. They used to be able to rely on royalty checks or songs could be used in commercials and paid for. Now masters are being relicensed. It’s even happening to the Rolling Stones. If it is happening to the most successful bands, you can imagine how it affects the people that inspired their music.”
Steve and his singer-songwriter wife Meegan Voss concentrate on putting together the fundraisers and pulling in major acts, but his biggest joy is seeing musicians get back on their feet. “The work the Foundation does gives us all a new zest for life — seeing doctors do pro bono work and people getting health care, new hips, remarkable stuff. They come back to life and they know they are not alone,” he says.
Joe Petrucelli, the Foundation’s associate director, expects to be just as busy in the coming year, especially in Puerto Rico, where much of the country remains without power or water. It is devastating,” he says. “Homes and venues where they used to play have been destroyed. Many performed with government funding, they could make a living. But the gigs have completely dried up. “Time and again we see musicians living on the edge, providing for their families, under pressure. Storms bring them to crisis point. And while their resilience is incredible, they need our help.”
Big name acts at previous fundraisers include Keith Richards, Bono, Elvis Costello, Dave Brubeck, Roberta Flack and Chaka Khan. To stay on top of the lineup for this year’s show and learn more about the Foundation and April 20’s ‘A Great Night in Harlem” go to: https://seniorplanet.org//jazzfoundation.org/
Photo Courtesy of Udo Salters Photography