While JFA has extended a lifeline throughout its history to musicians in need, it upped the ante in the wake of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. The organization experienced a post-Katrina spike in service, assisting more than 3,500 musicians with emergency housing, mortgage/rent payments and musical instruments. (Previously the JFA averaged 500 emergency cases each year.)
The most noteworthy case was supplying Fats Domino with a new piano after his prized instrument was destroyed by the floods. The JFA also raised more than a quarter-million dollars to buy instruments to help unemployed and displaced musicians get back on their feet.
"We have a program that employs musicians who are too old to start over in New Orleans," said JFA founder/executive director Wendy Atlas Oxenhorn, who has tirelessly led the charge by raising $1 million for the ongoing operation that brings music to schools and senior care centers.
"Some of these musicians are icons who can't get work on Bourbon Street, which now has little jazz since Katrina," she said. "When they do get work, the pay is ridiculously low. We also help out with transportation costs for work outside of the area."
New Orleans-based bandleader/clarinetist/jazz historian Dr. Michael White, who has played the JFA benefit for three years, turned in a rousing, blues-steeped rendition of "Horn Man Blues" at this year's show. His collection of artifacts and instruments, as well as his book-in-progress on the history of jazz in New Orleans, were lost in the flood.
"The Jazz Foundation has been tremendous," he said backstage after his performance. "It has done more than any single agency for so many musicians who lost their homes, their instruments, their music, their jobs."
Joining White onstage was New Orleans vocalist Thais Clark, who proved to be the blues-belting sparkplug of the evening. Afterwards, she told her JFA story. While her house wasn't completely destroyed, her living room area and kitchen were severely damaged.
"I didn't ask for much, but I did need help," she said. "I called Wendy and she said, 'Whatever you need, just let us know.' There wasn't a second thought. The Jazz Foundation was right there. Two thumbs up for them."
While she's a regular in New Orleans, it was Clark's first appearance at the Apollo, which was a thrill for her.
Ditto Norah Jones, arguably the youngest -- and most popular -- of all the performers. She joined Hank Jones, who was honored with a chocolate-iced cake in honor of his 90th birthday at the show. Along with bassist Buster Williams, he delivered a sublime version of "The Nearness of You."
Jones said she had a lot of reasons to sign on for the JFA benefit.
"They asked me to sing with Hank Jones, so that was a yes," she said. "It was at the Apollo Theater, which I'd never even been in before. That's a yes. And it's a good cause."
For other performers, the event was more personal in nature. Such was the case for guitarist Brandon Ross from the band Harriet Tubman, who served in the rhythm section for Blood Ulmer's spitfire blues number, "Little Red Rooster." Oxenhorn, who was once a performer, raised the heat with her fiery harmonica solo.