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Wendy Oxenhorn, Executive Director of the Jazz Foundation of America, has been in the helping, non-profit field since her teens. After training with the ballet since she was four years of age, and after dancing with New York City Ballet, she was told at 17 that her injury would cripple her if she continued and that she would never dance again. Thinking life was over, she called a suicide hotline. Luckily the woman on the other end of the phone turned out to have more troubles then Wendy did . Wendy began to counsel the counselor and ended up working at the suicide hotline three days later. Of course, this turned out to be the cure for her as she learned that helping others gave you little time to be depressed.
Oxenhorn started an organization with partner Carol-Ann Ross, called "Children In Need.' They took 35 children from a welfare hotel and created a small and protective big brother big sister program that was meant to watch over these kids who mostly were left alone for sometimes days a time, and suffered from addicted parents, neglect and malnutrition.They gave these children unique experiences that they normally would never have had, like the ballet, the circus, restaurants, poetry readings, offices, showing them that there was more to life then the welfare hotel scene and the world of lack and dreamlessness that it projected onto these young minds.
When the welfare hotel system was finally done away with in 1990, Oxenhorn co-founded STREETNEWS, the newspaper sold by homeless men and women in the subways and streets of NYC in 1990. In its first year, it had a circulation of 250,000 and generated over half a million dollars to the homeless, creating work for over 2000 of New York's homeless population as well as starting 150 like-papers sold by the homeless in cities around the world. Her board of Advisors included New York Times President, Lance Primis, Malcolm Forbes, CB Richard Ellis' CEO Stephen B. Siegel, and White House Chief-of-Staff John Sununu, as well as 35 CEO's of Fortune 500 Companies.
Oxenhorn then started a volunteer public school program called "Children of Substance," a support group helping middle-school-aged girls deal with drug addicted and alcoholic parents and bond with one another while learning they are no longer alone.
Soon after, she met the love of her life, as she always knew she would, but he turned out to be an Italian composer, (not realizing that of course this meant it would have to end tragically...) and it did. But this time she did not call the suicide hotline, she picked up the blues harmonica that he left behind and began to play the blues. She soon met an elderly blues man from Mississippi who played in the subway stations, and she found it was the first thing that gave her the same feeling she used to have when she danced. She even left her day gig to play the blues, taking a solo, then passing the tip bucket. Oxenhorn then met the great musician/composer Eliot Sharp, and asked him to play on a CD with her Mississippi mentor, who never had a real recording of his own unique style of blues. Sharp had a studio, where he did the recording for free, and gave them a CD to sell in the subways. They started to make some decent money with the CD. This was her first experience helping an older musician. It was also the only way she was now supporting her 2 children. She said that the blues saved her life and made her fly, but just as her chops were getting better and their subway audience had grown to crowds of 50 people, tragedy struck again. The blues man got himself a woman and his lady wouldn't let a girl stay in the band. He told Wendy "Sorry baby, you know you're like family, but like the song says: You Got To Go." (He was a real deal blues man.)
But life always somehow works out, for had she not been kicked out of the band, she never would have run into the person who told her about the job at the Jazz Foundation. Wendy went for an interview and says she was the only one who showed up for the job. "It wasn't my charitable resume with all my years experience that clinched it. When they heard I played blues harp in the train stations, they hired me on the spot."
That was nine years ago. At the time, the Jazz Foundation had been assisting 35 cases a year in NYC. It has since become a national organization and now saves 1600 cases a year, including hundreds of New Orleans musicians who suffered from Katrina. The Jazz Foundation has kept hundreds of elderly pioneers of this music from homelessness, eviction and hunger. It has housed and employed over 1000 musicians in the last 3 years alone, including hundreds from New Orleans with small children. Over eleven million dollars has been raised in the past nine years. Over 1000 uninsured musicians have received pro bono medical care and operations through their partnership with the angels of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Its personal approach saves musicians in crisis as if they were family and has touched the lives of countless legends. From Freddie Hubbard to Odetta, from Cecil Payne to Hank Crawford, the Jazz Foundation has been there. None of this could have been accomplished without the partnership of heroes and saints like Jarrett Lilien, its president, Agnes Varis, its vice chairwoman and Dick Parsons, its Chairman, and with board members like Danny Glover and Quincy Jones and with staff members past and present - Lauren Roberts, Dmitry Baevsky, Alisa Hafkin, Valerie Simon and Petr Verner. The Jazz Foundation has blossomed in the 20 years since it was started in the home of Herb Storfer along with Ann Ruckert (who funded it first), Dr. Billy Taylor, Phoebe Jacobs and pivotal original board members such as Jimmy Owens, Hank O'Neal, Ben Giordano, Leo Corbie, Sandy Jordan, Bill Wurtzel, Robert Opatrny and Jamil Nassar among other important members of this organization.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Jazz Foundation which is now best known for "Saving jazz and blues, one musician at a time..."
To learn more about JFA (www.jazzfoundation.org) and Executive Director Wendy Oxenhorn, and to show your support of non-profit companies such as JFA and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, come partake in a dialogue that promises to be filled with humor, leavened with tragedy, and a bright light of hope as a chaser.
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