[JPL] Nate Chinen in The NY Times - Jazz World Confronting Health
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Thu Feb 21 03:58:46 EST 2008
February 21, 2008
Jazz World Confronting Health Care Concerns
By Nate Chinen
Not quite a month ago the alto saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo had a major
seizure while driving his elderly landlady to a store in Brooklyn. “I
was convulsing all over the place,” he later wrote on his blog,
“grabbing onto the steering wheel violently, biting my tongue and
basically acting crazy.”
Fortunately, the driver behind him recognized what was happening, and
after quite a bit more drama — in the ambulance, Mr. D’Angelo
apparently tore through the straps of his gurney and tried to strangle
an emergency medical technician — he underwent testing that revealed a
large tumor on his brain.
Within days he was scheduled for surgery and had started writing about
the experience at andrewdangelo.com. He was clear about the fact that
he had no health insurance.
The health of jazz, as a topic of conversation, has long inspired a
lot of hand wringing among sympathetic parties. When the focus turns
toward the health of jazz musicians, the discussion assumes a
different, less abstract character: solicitous and supportive. Most
people who play jazz for a living are accustomed to self-reliance.
When that system fails, they lean on one another.
“Since I’ve been on the scene, there have been benefits for musicians
that were in need, unfortunately, because so many of us are,” the
guitarist John Scofield said in the rear stairwell of the Village
Vanguard on Monday night. Along with the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano
and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, he was playing a benefit for the
bassist Dennis Irwin, who has recently been struggling with a spinal
“I’m lucky enough that I can afford health insurance,” Mr. Scofield
continued, “but a lot of people can’t. On a jazz musician income
they’re getting by from gig to gig, keeping the roof over their heads
and feeding a family, and insurance doesn’t happen for them.”
Mr. Irwin, the regular bassist with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and a
seasoned sideman who has logged extensive time with Mr. Scofield and
Mr. Lovano, is another uninsured musician.
The sudden struggles of Mr. Irwin, 56, and Mr. D’Angelo, 41 —
musicians equally beloved in different sectors of the New York jazz
grid — have abruptly brought the issue of health care to the
foreground within jazz circles. Their stories have resonated with
musicians, who tend to absorb news of this sort with a tribal concern:
jazz is a collaborative art, after all, even if its artists are the
ultimate individualists. It may seem negligent that so many jazz
musicians lack basic health-care coverage, but monthly fees through an
organization like the Freelancers Union easily run to several hundred
dollars, and these days many gigs in New York literally involve a tip
The Vanguard sets were a great success, financially as well as
musically (it was Mr. Scofield’s first time performing with the
orchestra, and he nailed it). There will be another, bigger chance to
support Mr. Irwin on March 10, when Mr. Scofield and Mr. Lovano
spearhead an A-list benefit concert in partnership with Wynton
Marsalisand Jazz at Lincoln Center. Proceeds will go to the Jazz
Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization that provides aid to
jazz and blues musicians.
Mr. Irwin, speaking this week from his Manhattan home, said he had
just completed radiation treatments. His ordeal began in December with
a mysterious back pain. The Jazz Foundation referred him to the Dizzy
Gillespie Cancer Institute and Memorial Fund at Englewood Hospital and
Medical Center in New Jersey, which regularly provides free treatment
to jazz musicians. (Dr. Frank Forte, the institute’s director and a
jazz guitarist, treated Gillespie there during the final months of his
battle with pancreatic cancer in 1993.)
The Jazz Foundation does considerably more than steer musicians toward
services. Its mission also involves protecting musicians from
eviction, malnutrition and other misfortunes.
“We get 60 cases a week like this, each having its own urgency and
desperation,” Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director, said. Referring
to Mr. Irwin, she added, “I’ve never seen an outpouring of so much for
If that’s true, Mr. D’Angelo runs a close second. “I knew that I was
loved,” he said this week, “and I knew that this musical community was
close. But I had no idea the compassion ran this deep, and I mean that
from the bottom of my heart.”
Mr. D’Angelo is a key figure in Brooklyn’s underground jazz scene, and
part of a peer group that includes the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, the
drummer Jim Black and the saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed. He
has a strong new album, “Skadra Degis,” on Mr. Speed’s label, Skirl,
with Mr. Black and the bassist Trevor Dunn. Its release party had long
been scheduled to take place Friday at the Tea Lounge in Park Slope.
The gig is still on, but now it will be one of more than a dozen
benefits for Mr. D’Angelo, spread across the United States and Europe.
Mr. Black, Mr. Speed and Mr. Dunn will perform, as will the
multireedist Oscar Noriega and the drummer Matt Wilson, two more of
Mr. D’Angelo’s close compatriots. A separate benefit is scheduled for
next Thursday at Barbès, also in Park Slope.
Mr. D’Angelo has received financial support from both the Jazz
Foundation and the MusiCares Foundation, a program of the National
Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. His operation was a success in
the sense that most of the tumor was removed, with no adverse effects.
But further analysis revealed that he has an especially serious form
of brain cancer.
“The doctor said that without treatment, I will live for five years,”
he wrote last Friday, after receiving the news. “Seems dismal and I’m
unwilling to accept it.” He is likely to begin radiation treatment
shortly, having ruled out further surgery.
Apart from the dramatic nature of their stories, Mr. Irwin and Mr.
D’Angelo are sadly not exceptions. A few years ago, for instance, the
tenor saxophonist Michael Blake had two operations for a ruptured
appendix. Having no insurance, he chose Bellevue Hospital Center for
its sliding-scale fee; he also received assistance from MusiCares. He
still has no insurance, though he is obviously aware of the risks. (He
just spent the weekend at Bellevue watching over Scott Harding, a
prolific record producer and engineer who was critically injured in a
car accident last week. Mr. Harding does not have insurance either.)
The situation is the same for Mr. Speed, who has spent a lot of time
visiting Mr. D’Angelo in hospitals lately. “A lot of my friends,
myself included, don’t have insurance, which seems really idiotic,
especially now,” he said. “But it’s also very expensive to get
It should be noted, too, that even musicians with health coverage
encounter serious financial needs; this is one of the major areas of
concern for the Jazz Foundation. The costs associated with an illness
can go well beyond the literal costs of treatment, because a musician
who is not working usually translates to a musician without an income.
Last October the pianist George Cables, who does have private health
insurance, had simultaneous transplant operations, receiving a new
liver and kidney. While the procedures were covered, he has not been
able to earn a living during his recovery. So he was fortunate to have
two all-star tributes presented in his honor recently, in San
Francisco and New York. He received about $12,000 from each, he said.
But the money wasn’t the only benefit, so to speak. “One of the best
things for me was how people came together, and expressed their
concern, and expressed their support by coming and playing,” he said.
“That was better than anything.”
Benefits for Andrew D’Angelo: Friday at the Tea Lounge, 837 Union
Street, near Sixth Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 789-2762,
tealoungeny.com; Feb. 28 at Barbès, 376 Ninth Street, at Sixth Avenue,
Park Slope, Brooklyn, (718) 965-9177, barbesbrooklyn.com. Benefit for
Dennis Irwin: March 10 at the Allen Room, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz
at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway, (212) 721-6500, jalc.org.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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