In the days after Hurricane Sandy darkened the Lower East Side, an old man played horn inside his dark, cold apartment, hungry for his favorite food: chicken. Then, unexpectedly, knuckles rapped at his door. It was four volunteers from the Jazz Foundation of America, and they had warm food and clothing.
Tears welled up in the man’s eyes. “Who are you? And, I love you,” he said.
“He wanted a piece of chicken,” recalls Alisa Hafkin, the JFA’s Director of Social Services. “And there we were — with a chicken! I’m telling you, it was like magic.”
A year later, the JFA is still giving the musician a food card every month, along with new clothes.
The moment Hurricane Sandy was forecasted about a year ago, the Jazz Foundation was ready to hit the ground running. The organization — created in 1989 by musicians, teachers and philanthropists committed to preserving and promoting jazz — had rebuilt the lives of over 1,000 musicians in New Orleans after Katrina. With endorsements from big-name musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Fats Domino, and millions of dollars in donations over the years, the JFA is easily able to help struggling jazz musicians in emergencies.
The day after Sandy hit, employees of the foundation gathered at their offices on West 48th Street and loaded associate director Joseph Petrucelli’s car with bottled water, snacks, juice boxes, flashlights, long underwear, winter hats and 50 roasted half chickens. They printed out a long list of names and addresses from the JFA’s database of local jazz musicians who lived below 42nd Street.
“We trudged downtown, which was mind-blowing,” Hafkin says. “South of 42nd Street there was no electricity. Nothing was open, not a light was on, not a restaurant, not a store, no ATMs, nothing.”
The team knocked on doors and schlepped up dark stairwells to deliver their goods. “You’re talking about older people, cold, no food, and they don’t keep much food in the refrigerator anyway,” Hafkin says. “So you don’t have the ability to go out to your local grocery store and pick up something. They didn’t have much.”
For seven days the JFA was on the streets, delivering food and water to musicians on the Lower East Side. But they didn’t stop there. When it became clear that Sandy had wiped out storehouses and practice spaces, the foundation pledged to replace or defray the cost of as much equipment as possible, and also to help pay rent and moving costs for apartments and homes.
When the storm hit, Tony Moreno, a highly sought-after jazz drummer and full-time jazz percussion professor at NYU Steinhardt, lost his performance and recording studio of 42 years in the Westbeth building, a community for artists in the West Village. The storm blew out the studio’s ceiling and doors, and destroyed all the electrical wiring, amounting to more than $10,000 in damage. He lost nearly $150,000 worth of equipment, including a brand new Yamaha grand piano, file cabinets of original scores, amps, guitars, P.A. systems, and manuscripts dating back to 17th century. “It basically destroyed 42 years of my life,” he says.
FEMA and SBA rejected his claims for assistance because his studio was not a residence. “I contacted the JFA as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to get any help,” Moreno says. “I reached out to people for financial assistance. I had no instruments, nowhere to work and really no support.” The JFA bought him amps and keyboards, and the New York Foundation for the Arts bought him a drum set.
Before Sandy, Moreno played for eight to ten hours every day; it was his routine for 42 years. “With that kind of stuff, you have to go through all the emotional levels of loss: denial, anger, depression,” Moreno says. “It’s just like losing someone you love. There are things that can’t be replaced.”
Moreno needed a place to play — a place to mourn and recover. But that proved to be a disappointment, too. “I ended up finding rehearsal space in Long Island City in a storage facility under an ice-skating rink in a garage,” Moreno says. “It was too depressing to practice there. People were walking around and the ice-skating rink above was freezing cold — I felt like a caged animal.”
Now, a year after Sandy, Moreno rents a rehearsal space on an hourly basis. He shares it with 11 other drummers, and gets two hours to play here and there — if he’s lucky. Moreno simply can’t afford to rent his own rehearsal space, and he doesn’t see having his own studio any time in the near future. All he can do is keep his fingers crossed that he can play at Westbeth again soon.
Bruce Mack, a veteran jazz musician and music teacher at P.S. 3 in the West Village, lost nearly $80,000 worth of equipment to Sandy. The 54-year-old watched helplessly from a hill as his basement apartment in Staten Island, as well as his storage unit and everything inside it, was destroyed: an extensive keyboard collection, amps, mixers, recording devices, hard drives, computers and a collection of over 3,000 CDs and 600 vinyl records.
Within a week, Mack made contact with the JFA through friends. “[Hafkin] has been in my corner since day one. And I mean she’s been there and she’s been really good,” says the normally articulate man, shaking his head and shrugging as he tries to express his amazement at the foundation’s help. “They came to the rescue on a couple of occasions.”
Mack stayed with friends after the storm from November through December, then the JFA paid for him to stay in hotels in lower Manhattan from December through March. In March, the foundation helped Mack pay for a temporary apartment in Brooklyn — the borough where he was born, and a place to which he never expected he’d return. Mack lived there until two weeks ago, and now he lives with his girlfriend and her son in Harlem.
Since he has settled a little, the psychological distress is starting to catch up with him. “It’s like, that was a challenge, and maybe it’s all good now,” Mack says. “Fact is, I just don’t know what it is. And that’s really forced me to look at how you’ve gotta just live in the moment. Think about the things that you do well. The people that love you, the people that really dig what you do, and you dig them.”
That spirit was on display when the JFA, with the help of jazz labels like Truth Revolution Records, hosted a benefit concert at le Poisson Rouge on November 8, in the days after Sandy. Label owner Tiffany Ente estimates that the JFA raised only about $2,000, but she says, “The atmosphere was filled with hope. And many were giving in the best way they knew how, by giving their time and talent.”
Jazz clubs got in on the act, too: Blue Note, a club in the Village, sent employees to the Rockaways to help people out. “We collected coats, canned goods and dry goods to donate,” says Grant Gardner, Blue Note’s marketing director. “The Rockaways was a mess and we went out the first weekend or so after the hurricane.”
But recovery is far from complete, both for musicians like Moreno who still have nowhere to play, and also for those musicians less fortunate than Mack who still have nowhere to live. “The scars from the hurricane have not healed,” Ente says, “and with another winter season approaching, who knows what we have in store.” New York jazz musicians have proven themselves in the past, though — if they can survive in this city, they can survive anything.