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Appreciating The Jazz Aged

Felix Contreras specializes in coverage of jazz, world music, and Latino arts and culture. He reflects on his four-part series on the plight of aging jazz musicians, and how it came about.

The idea for the series was born at a jazz conference in January 2004.

To celebrate its Jazz Masters awards, the National Endowment for the Arts assembled as many of the living Jazz Masters who could travel at a jazz educators' conference in New York City.

It was an extremely moving and emotional event for a lifelong jazz fan like me.

About an hour and a half into the ceremony, one of the Jazz Masters left the stage. As he passed near where I was sitting, an audience member asked him: "Where are you going? It's not over yet!"

The musician replied with a chuckle: "I have to go take my pills!"

Conducting a very unscientific mental survey, I guessed the average age of the assembled musicians to be at least 78.

I wondered how the infirmities of old age were affecting the musicians who pioneered bebop after World War II.

In light of the health care crisis affecting our country and, specifically, the elderly and the uninsured, many of us Boomers now have those issues on our front burners as we care for our aging parents.

What struck me most after over six months researching and reporting this series was the paradox of adulation and abandonment that confronts many of these musicians.

I was also struck by the way they put a dignified face on sometimes desperate situations. While I heard about musicians who refuse to take care of themselves, there are more stories about musicians who did not have the means to do just that.

I spent an afternoon with Wendy Oxenhorn of the Jazz Foundation of America in New York. She literally cannot hold a conversation for more than six minutes without her cell phone interrupting. And it is almost always a musician in need. Wendy and the JFA have become as much a part of the jazz scene in New York as any club. They seem to have the total support of jazz musicians whether they need her help or not.

I think the reason is that musicians now feel they can have some control over the economic aspects of their lives. As I tried to reflect in the series, the economics of jazz are tough. And if financial opportunity has passed a musician by, groups like the JFA can help remedy that a bit.

While the series does have a limited run, many of the issues addressed are things that we here at NPR can follow closely. Jazz is still a vibrant art form and the people who make it are constantly improvising not just in their music but also in how they manage their careers.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.