Stimulus is music to jazz artists' ears

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For jazz pianist Bertha Hope, music has always been a part of life.

“From the time I was three, there was always a piano in the house,” Bertha said.

Decades later, her tune hasn’t changed much. Working as a full-time musician in New York, Bertha gets by teaching music lessons and playing gigs with her various bands, including the Jazzberry Jams.

But the recession has Bertha, and musicians like her, struggling more than usual to make ends meet.

“I would say that my bookings are maybe down by 60 percent,” Bertha told TheGrio. “I mean, I’m on the fringes really.”

Yet thanks to the Jazz Foundation of America, a nonprofit group that assists struggling veteran musicians, Bertha has one gig that she can always count on: performing in local schools. More than 1,000 musicians like her have also benefited since the program’s creation in 1992.

“These are the people who played with Chet Baker, Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones,” said Wendy Oxenhorn, the executive director of Jazz Foundation of America. “These are people who were a part of American music, and they recorded and played with these musical giants.”

Through the Jazz in Schools program, these veteran musicians are paid to perform twice a month in front of audiences who might otherwise never be exposed to jazz and blues.

“These kids nowadays don’t have music programs anyway,” said Oxenhorn. “The kids get to hear music for the first time and they love it. They run up after and ask for the musician’s autographs.”

The Jazz in Schools program is one recipient of the $275 billion stimulus created by February’s Recovery Act. In all, 200 more concerts have been added to the program with that funding, helping more musicians to pay their bills.

“People who never needed us are now needing us,” said Oxenhorn. “So if you add that to all the great elderly pioneers that already paid their dues, who we were already supporting because they couldn’t make their rent every month, it adds up to a lot more. It’s not only a sense of purpose, but you know, you are allowing them to do what they do best which is make the world beautiful with their music.”

For Bertha, the program has kept her at her best, even in tough economic times.

“This is just another rough patch,” she said. “This is just a little rougher; this rut is a little deeper than the one before, but we will all get through it.”