The Jazz Foundation: Providing a Safety Net for Jazz and Blues Musicians

Make Music Day

Interview with Will Glass, Program Director of the Jazz Foundation, conducted by the Make Music Alliance in May 2022

How did the Jazz Foundation get started?

It was founded in New York in 1989 by a small group of musicians and musician advocates, including Dr. Billy Taylor, Phoebe Jacobs, Ann Ruckert, Cy Blank, and Herb Storfer. It was founded because these people saw a gap in support for lifelong musicians, particularly in jazz, and it was founded as a safety net for these artists. 

What work did the foundation do to begin with?

The first ten years or so were small; it was largely a gentleman in his apartment with a checkbook, giving out grants for the Jazz Musicians Emergency Fund, which was the primary program of the Jazz Foundation in the beginning. Around the year 2000, Wendy Oxenhorn came on as Executive Director and fundraising really stepped up with our annual “Great Night In Harlem” gala at the Apollo Theater, and a lot of people know us through that event, because that’s been 20 years of A-list performers at the Apollo. Our relief efforts also stepped up out of necessity, particularly after Hurricane Katrina, when we helped over a thousand musicians who had lost their homes through a period of great difficulty. 

I see that you create work opportunities for musicians; when did that begin?

In the aftermath of Katrina is also when our role stepped up as a provider of work opportunities. Our Jazz in the Schools has started a little before that, but when Katrina happened and there were no gigs anywhere in New Orleans we were able to use Jazz in the schools, and also concerts in nursing homes and community centers as a way for musicians to have places to play, and we would pay them. To this day we have around a dozen bands in New Orleans who play every month, and we have a co-worker who lives down there. I administer around a dozen bands in New York, and there are some other bands in other states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, California, who perform for us regularly, largely in schools and nursing home. One of our crucial early allies for our “gig fund” was the Make Music Alliance. We had some money to try to create some work, and through the Make Music Alliance we were able to connect with local venues, connect with musicians we know, and do several concerts around the country all at once. Make Music was a critical partner that helped us realize this vision of setting up bands in public spaces and letting them play. 

Now that live performances are returning, what are you working on for the immediate future?

I think for the performance programs this summer is proving that our outdoor programming is going to remain robust, that the demand for live music is huge, and the benefit and the joy and the healing that comes with hearing live music is more in demand than ever before. Our outdoor programming of the kind we started with Make Music is going to continue to grow, we will continue to work with our partners, and then I hope that we will be getting back to our indoor programming, particularly in schools and nursing homes, because those are populations that we love to reach and that have always loved having our bands visit, and hoping that it’s safe enough in September so we can get back to that and expand that as well. But, as everyone knows, things are still a little bit uncertain, so one day at a time, I guess! 

Do you think live music is appreciated more after the past two years?

Absolutely; I think more people might recognize the difference in the physical sensation of feeling the vibration in the air of music, of being there when it is live, as opposed to experiencing it virtually or even through recordings. After two years of being inside, you really feel the difference when you hear those instruments in person, and hopefully it will encourage people to get back out there. Some of our staff was in New Orleans last week for the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the joy was palpable, and that was a good sign of live music really coming back strong.