By Carla B.
It is isn’t often that you’re fortunate enough to sit down with a renowned Doctor who attended medical school at Yeshiva University Albert Einstein College of Medicine, graduating in 1964 — with over 48 years experience.Not to mention this fine physician also being an esteemed Jazz Musician, as well as friend and doctor of American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer and occasional singer Dizzy Gillespie.
Francis Forte, MD and Dizzy Gillespie met some twenty years ago. It was music and medicine that brought these two extraordinary human beings together and it’s the same combo that still intertwines them in spirit and practice today.
Dr. Forte was kind enough to sit down for an interview with me and share his knowledge, his experience working with Dizzy Gillespie and how the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund was born. Let’s get started!
Carla B. : Dr. Forte, thank you for your time. I hear that you are a jazz musician as well, how exciting! Please tell us about your background in music and medicine.
Dr. Forte: Well, Carla, I think I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. As a little kid, the sound quality had static. I agreed to make the sick people better. Then, I went into oncology and hematology where the sick people really need to be made better, but often it is not measured in a cure.
When I was 11 years old, I found a ukulele in my grandmother’s attic and taught myself how to play it. My father suggested that I play the guitar and brought home a $12 Stellar, and guitar players of my vintage will know exactly what I mean. From there, it was lessons, seminars, bands, all kinds of fun things although I must confess that the guitar did gather a lot of dust while I was in medical school. Now I play solo jazz guitar on a nylon string one night a week in a restaurant. It encourages and impels me to keep in shape and practice. I try to read and listen to other musicians as much as I can and keep up my reading music skills.
Carla B.: Thank you for painting that wonderful picture for me! How did the relationship with Dizzy Gillespie and Englewood Hospital come about?
Dr. Forte: Dizzy was a patient with pancreatic cancer. His general practitioner asked me to see him and then our relationship began. Try as much as we could, the surgeons, the oncologists and the radiotherapists, Dizzy was not to be made better. To be made more comfortable and to be given some support, yes, but not to be cured. Pancreatic cancer is one of the worst cancers that we deal with. During that time, we talked a great deal about music and I enjoyed his unique sense of humor as well as his genuine feeling for musicians and friends. Everybody at Englewood knew Dizzy Gillespie and would say hello to him and he would stop and have a chat with them on the street. He was that kind of guy, you liked him immediately. When he was dying, he told the administrators of the hospital that he would be glad to give his name to the hospital to use for whatever they wanted, as long as we helped musicians who did not have life as good as he did. He said, perhaps, they had a lot of skill and they had a lot of good futures in instruments, but some way or another, not everybody makes it, that’s the way God wants it. I’ll never forget that and I think that may be because God wants us to help some people that really are not getting to where they ought to be. So, we got in touch with the Jazz Foundation, which was founded by a number of greats like Jamil Nasser, Billy Taylor, and a businessman who was also a jazz pianist, Herb Storfer. They were the nuts and bolts of the Jazz Foundation, and I must include Jimmy Owens, who is now a Master of the National Endowment for the Arts. They were very impressive and very helpful. They helped us choose the people that we should help and have always helped them and helped us help them as well. The Jazz Foundation started a few years before the Dizzy Gillespie Fund, but soon I became involved in the Jazz Foundation as well.
Carla B.: Wow, I am so in awe right now. The Jazz Foundation has done so many great things for musicians in need as well, kudos to them and continued success. What did you do to start the Dizzy Gillespie Fund and keep your promise to take care of indigent jazz musicians?
Dr. Forte: Well, first of all, I had the full cooperation of the hospital in terms of paying for hospitalization, drugs, inpatient studies, outpatient studies, and second of all, I have a team of about 70 wonderful physicians who are also willing to give their time, pro bono, to help this cause. Without that, I don’t think anybody can succeed in this day and age of medicine.
Carla B.: So Dizzy Gillespie died of pancreatic cancer. Correct. Did he have health insurance?
Dr. Forte: Yes he did. Did I ever worry about how much money his illness was costing or what he needed? No, I just gave him everything that I thought he needed.
You know the Jazz Foundation does many other things, trying to keep people in their homes, keep their union dues paid, telephones working, and get them some gigs. When there is a disaster somewhere, we do as much as we can, remembering Katrina, wherein we did a lot.
Carla B.: That’s really wonderful Dr. Forte. What services does this wonderful network of doctors provide?
Dr. Forte: Medical visits, medical treatments, surgeries, direction. We are a little thin on home care and on outpatient services other than those provided by doctors but we are working on that.
Carla B.: Is there a cost to musicians?
Dr. Forte: Only to say that they need help and to come and get it and to be approved by the Jazz Foundation, and that is because I do not, nor do my colleagues, know all of the people who are truly jazz musicians and I like to make sure that we have a uniform way of accepting patients for care.
Carla B.: How large is your pro bono network?
Dr. Forte: Well, it is 70-some-odd doctors in Englewood Hospital and that includes many different specialists as well as internists and general practitioners. Our network extends to Englewood Hospital only, however, and often includes screening programs and educational programs for the patients.
Carla B.: How can musicians get funding for their illness?
Dr. Forte: In general, budgeting for health insurance should be included. They should try to get their union dues paid and try to get enough union-supported gigs so that money will be put aside for their pension plan and their health plan. That’s a little bit hard for jazz musicians, especially in some of the big cities and especially when we don’t have an organized concert tour or facility that contracts music that respects these things.
Carla B.: What if they have no insurance? What if they didn’t have enough quarters for Social Security?
Dr. Forte: Then, we take care of them and that’s in more than just a health and sickness way but through the Jazz Foundation, a lot more of their needs are met as we mentioned above, housing, and food…food, imagine, food…a fellow who’s played music all of his life and has entertained people and made them feel happy has to worry about what he’s going to eat, but these are things that we are trying to do more and more of. Unfortunately, we have to include drug counseling and alcohol counseling and free legal counseling which occurs from time to time when these fellows get themselves in a jam or when they’re getting thrown out of their apartment illegally.
Carla B.: Since 2001, this network of amazing doctors has grown to other states where you all have found uninsured musicians who need help. Is this something that will continue indefinitely?
Dr. Forte: I hope we’re going to be able to continue. The costs are high and the funding is getting thin. My advice to other physicians who want to do this is to be dedicated to it, spend the time that it takes, and convince your hospitals to help you. Otherwise, you will have a very hard time making any headway meeting the non-physician costs that are encountered with the patient’s care.
You know that in certain instances such as the Katrina disaster, we have been there. We spent a fair amount of money and time helping these people relocate, get jobs elsewhere, get involved in the jazz in the school program to make some money and also to replace music, instruments and things that were lost during the flood that were necessary for their survival.
Carla B.: Is the Jazz Foundation of New York connected to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial?
Dr. Forte: More correctly, the Jazz Foundation of America, which is based in New York and started in Herb Storfer’s apartment with one little desk for the executive to work with, now has an office in the Union Hall on 48th Street. The Jazz Foundation of America is connected to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial in the ways that I’ve mentioned before. Some of the fundraising that goes on at the Jazz Foundation of America is for the Dizzy Gillespie Fund at Englewood Hospital.
Carla B.: How can donors help support the work of the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund?
Dr. Forte: If they send money or a check to the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Fund at Englewood Hospital, c/o The Development Office, 350 Engle Street, Englewood, NJ 07631, we will use it to the best of our ability and 100% in efforts for the patients. If you have questions, you can always reach me at the same address or our Development office.
Carla B.: There are now thousands of musicians that can have a fulfilled life and are singing and dancing because of the Dizzy Gillespie fund and you, Dr. Forte, and your wonderful network of physicians. How does this make you feel?
Dr. Forte: It makes me feel very good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something for people that have done something for me, that have helped shape my life. They’ve played music that has bolstered me up at times when I would much rather have sat in the corner and cried. They inspired me to continue to play my guitar. By the way, when I play my gigs, any money that I get, whether it’s passing the hat or actually from the club owner, all the money goes to the Dizzy Gillespie Fund because I am not a professional musician and I know who needs the money more than I do, so how does it make me feel and how does it make all of my compatriots who are helping in this? We feel real good. You should see the excitement that the doctors have when they have one of these patients.
This changed my life a lot. I had to learn a lot of things. I had to learn about musician-related injury and problems with lack of sleep, lack of good food, being on the road, and depression, because a lot of artists who don’t feel that they are up to where they belong are depressed or, at least, sad. I also had to learn how to get help for people in specialties other than my own when I’m over my head, and that’s more often than I wish it were, but it is a fact so I do that and I think the specialists appreciate that and enjoy helping us out.
Carla B.: I commend you and your colleagues, you all are doing such a great service for these musicians and you are such an inspiration. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, it’s truly been an honor. One last question, will you be performing at the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Benefit on October 16?
Dr. Forte: Yes, two songs.
Carla B.: I am definitely looking forward to seeing your performance. Thanks again Doctor Forte.
Dr. Forte: Thank you very much.
To find out more about the Dizzy Gillespie Memorial Benefit taking place on October 16th @ The Cotton Club in New York visit the link below.
Purchase your tickets in advance.