October 03, 2005 12:00 PM

Wendy Oxenhorn was 18 when she made her first—and last—call to a suicide hotline. Despairing over a knee injury that had put an end to dreams of becoming a ballerina, she wound up listening sympathetically as the telephone counselor opened up about her own troubles. Oxenhorn realized compassion was her calling and three days later began working the phones at the hotline. “You know how the universe works,” she says. “Something drops into our lap.”

Another twist of fate—the devastation wrought by Katrina—has brought Oxenhorn her latest mission. As executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, she recently delivered $70,000 worth of donated musical instruments to a dozen New Orleans jazzmen who escaped the city with their lives intact but their livelihoods shattered. “I thought, ‘I have to do something,'” Oxenhorn says. “These are people who are there in our greatest moments of joy and our deepest moments of sadness. They get us through life.”

Started in 1989, the Jazz Foundation originally focused on keeping the music form alive. But under the inspired leadership of Oxenhorn, who took over in 2000, the emphasis has shifted to directly helping people who have given their lives to a career that, too often, comes with no health insurance or financial safety net: the longtime Sinatra side-man who lost his apartment after a bout with pneumonia, the songwriter who wrote lyrics for Muddy Waters but ended up without food on her table. With a budget this year of $580,000, raised in part through benefit concerts at New York City’s famed Apollo Theatre, the foundation “is the answer to a lot of prayers,” says guitarist Jimmy “Bean” Ballero, who received $650 for temporary shelter after the storm.

The willowy Brooklyn-born Oxenhorn seems to have little in common with the veteran musicians she serves. Yet she is well-acquainted with hardship. After working for nonprofit groups, including one for homeless people and another for children of addicts, the divorced mother of two teenage daughters, Sky and Montana, briefly earned her living by playing harmonica for tips at subway stations. “I could make $150 at rush hour and be home in time to make dinner,” she says. She discovered her own musical talent after splitting with a composer who left behind his harmonica. “Instead of the suicide hotline, I picked up the harmonica and played the blues,” Oxenhorn says.

A harmonica was also a gift she gave to saxophonist Earl Turbinton Jr., known to fans as the African Cowboy. Though he once played with B.B. King, Turbinton turned to Oxenhorn’s group for medical assistance after having two strokes and bypass surgery in 2004. He and Wendy became fast friends over the phone, but it wasn’t until Sept. 15 in Lafayette, La., where Turbinton and other musicians relocated, that the two met face-to-face. Turbinton’s eyes welled up as he took Oxenhorn into his arms. “She has her heart in it,” he says. “You can feel it.”

Nancy Jeffrey. Steve Barnes in Lafayette

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