Safety net tears: E*Trade ends emergency funds for jazz musicians

A new hole in the safety net for jazz musicians: In an e-mail message sent February 18, Jazz Foundation of America executive director Wendy Oxenhorn reports: 

 Our magnificent E*TRADE Emergency Housing Fund has allowed us to pay rents and mortgages all these years when elderly musicians fell ill, and when Katrina struck. Because of this fund we have never lost anyone to homelessness or eviction in the past 8 years!  What ETRADE did for us all these years was amazing but we have just been told that they can no longer support our program going forward. Without their contribution our Emergency Fund is now at an all time low.  

Jazz musicians in the United States almost never have pensions and seldom get health insurance through employers (I bet that’s the case for most American rap, rock, pop, polka, folk, country and probably the majority of classical musicians, too). At the JFA’s Great Night In Harlem fundraiser held August 29, 2001, R. Jarrett Lilien, then Chief Operating Officer of E*Trade Financial and now President of the Jazz Foundation, announced the establishment of a standing fund to provide assistance to musicians in need. The JFA claims that since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, more than 3500 musicians have been helped with these monies. With E*Trade bowing out, the JFA seeks a new $150,000 sponsor for its housing fund. 

Housing is only a part of the JFA’s larger mission, which also includes pro bono health care, employment assistance, instrument provisions and jazz education. Despite the series of crisis facing jazz musicians and the jazz recording industry over the past eight years, the JFA has maintained a high profile and raised millions of dollars, spending very little on administration (it keeps small offices in the Musicians Union building in midtown Manhattan). Oxenhorn and Lilien have been joined by a not so small and still growing number of other exceptionally generous individuals — most notably Agnes Varis and a retinue of doctors associated with Englewood Hospital and Medical Center — to expand activities in the face of increasing need. In another paragraph of her email, Oxenhorn writes,   

Donations are down by 50% and yet we have twice the number of musicians coming in for help. . .  Maybe you can make a donation online, at maybe you can get a ticket to our “Great Night In Harlem Concert this May 14th” it will be a tribute to folks like Etta James and the blues! You can get tickets by emailing

The Great Night concerts, held at the Apollo Theater, have been sold-out galas featuring music and testimonials from the likes of Frank Foster, James “Blood” Ulmer, Houston Person, Freddie Hubbard and Dr. Billy Taylor (one of the JFA’s founders), emcee’d by Bill Cosby, Chevy Chase and Danny Glover. In past years, many attendees/patrons/donors have been employed in financial sevices companies such as E*Trade — but with the losses on Wall Street one wonders it that same crowd will turn out to help again.

Clearly, that crowd has loved the music; jazz is the soundtrack of sophistication, after all, and the blues (Wendy Oxenhorn plays some mean blues harp, and always has real funk at the show’s climax)  connects urbanity to its gritty roots. As the recession hits full swing, before any recovery act can kick in, the lot of the players, well-known and lesser-known, who’ve sung and played to keep us smiling (or trying) are going to need some payback. It’s tough times for everyone, but how much do we love these musicians? How much can we spare?

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