A Heavenly Collaboration: Dizzy Gillespie and Dr. Jazz


In 1993, my friend Dizzy Gillespie invited me to join him on one of the jazz cruises where musicians perform and hang out with jazz-struck passengers. I had interviewed him before, but this would be in a more extensive and varied setting. Suddenly Dizzy canceled the trip, entering New Jersey’s Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, where he had previously been a patient. There, dying of pancreatic cancer, Dizzy, who had health insurance, said to Francis Forte, his oncologist, and himself a jazz guitarist: “I can’t give you any money, but I can let you use my name. Promise you’ll help musicians less
fortunate than I am.” That was the Dizzy I knew, regarded by his sidemen as a teacher and mentor.

>From that conversation began the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund and the Dizzy Gillespie Cancer Institute at the hospital. By now more than a thousand jazz musicians unable to pay have received a full range of medical and surgical care by Dr. Forte and a network of more than 50 physicians in various specialties, financed by the hospital and donations.

The primary access to this unprecedented life-expanding jazz program is through the Jazz Foundation of New York, also known internationally for helping jazz musicians — from preventing their being evicted to providing food and other necessities. Since most jazz players don’t have medical or pension plans, some at last have a substantial safety net, all the more extensive thanks to Dizzy.

At Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, the costs of the medical care so far have been more than $5 million. Says Douglas A. Duchak, its president and CEO: “In death, Dizzy’s legacy has touched — and sometimes saved — the lives of jazz musicians around the world.”

Dr. Forte, a guitarist who donates whatever he earns from his jazz gigs at Griffin’s in Cresskill (north of Englewood) to the center, told me recently that eager as he was to fulfill his promise to Dizzy, “I had to first find out if this icon had any skeletons in his closet that could create problems for the hospital. I called a lot of musicians, including trumpet players, and there was nothing, nothing at all, but admiration.”

Thereupon, to summon the spirit of a vintage New Orleans jazz anthem, the saints started marching in. Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation, says: “They’ve never turned down a musician in need that we have sent them.” She tells of how the Hot & Brass Band of New Orleans, after playing a New York benefit for Hurricane Katrina survivors, came to Englewood Hospital with various ailments, particularly a musician with an untreated gash on his leg from carrying his child through the floodwater. “The doctors at Englewood,” says Wendy, “checked all of them for free, and gave them lunch.”

There are particular physical problems that affect musicians’ livelihoods. “We’ve had people who couldn’t carry their drums — they had degenerative hip disease,” Dr. Forte told the North Jersey Record on Oct. 26. “A fellow with terrible teeth couldn’t play his trumpet, and there are guitarists who can’t play because their wrists hurt.”

I’ve told Frank Forte that he and the other physicians on jazz call at the hospital exemplify a classic Jelly Roll Morton recording, “Doctor Jazz.”

On Oct. 25, in the auditorium of Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, the 15th anniversary of the Dizzy Gillespie Institute and Memorial Fund was celebrated with this Dr. Jazz as honoree. There were 15 musicians performing — some of whom told of the regeneration they’ve received as Dr. Forte’s promise to Dizzy Gillespie is being kept. Pianist Danny Mixon, who has been treated for prostate cancer, said: “I just got cleared from Dr. Forte a few weeks ago. He told me, ‘Just keep playing the music, man.'”

The tribute and concert also marked the grand opening of the new Infusion Therapy Center, serving all of the hospital’s patients in need of the intravenous administration of medication, nutrients or fluids.

Coming, Dr. Forte tells me, are more “screening programs for prostate, colon and breast cancer; diabetes; hypertension; sickle cell anemia, etc. — so people don’t get terribly sick before we see them. I just turned 70, and I am going to continue this as long as I can, hopefully raising some money so we’ll be able to continue doing this in these tough times of cutbacks.”

As a result of the October tribute to him, nearly $25,000 has been donated to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund in the doctor’s honor. The benefits are not solely to the musicians.

“Heaven knows,” says Dr. Jazz, “the music is a force that brings renewal not only to the sick but also to the staff who treat them. The music spurs on the caregivers and family members, too. We know this for sure at Englewood Hospital.”

These comments are in the liner notes for “Jazz Therapy” — a new series of recordings involving Englewood Hospital, the Jazz Foundation and Motema Records (englewoodhospital.com; jazzfoundation.org and motema.com), with proceeds benefiting the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund.

The concept was proposed to Motema Records founder Jana Harzen, who specializes, she notes, in recording artists who create “music with healing qualities, regardless of genre.” Her label, Motema, is named after a central African word meaning both “heart” and “love.”

The first volume in the Jazz Therapy series, “Smile,” is a lyrically meditative dialogue between guitarists Roni Ben-Hur and Gene Bortoncini. The album is dedicated to the late master bassist Earl May, after whom Englewood Hospital has named the area in the main lobby where jazz musicians perform each weekday from noon to 2 p.m. When “Smile” premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Nov. 3, Dr. Jazz, the oncologist, sat in for one number.

As I think of all this healing medicine generated by the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie, he comes to mind as I described him in “Listen to the Stores/ Nat Hentoff on Jazz and Country Music” (Harper Collins): “Seeing Dizzy, however casually, was like coming into sunlight. By the warmth of his greeting, his natural considerateness and the keenness of his intelligence — which made his wit so sharp — he was a delight to be with. And he was a delight to himself when he was alone.”

I was mindful of Gene Lees in “Waiting for Dizzy” (Oxford University Press). About to meet Gillespie in a small park in Minneapolis, he saw that “lost in some musical thought, Dizzy was softly dancing, all alone there, in the sunlight.”

There are musicians now who can dance because of Dizzy and Dr. Jazz.

Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Wall Street Journal.