On April 16th, the Fifth Annual Inner City Blues Festival “Healing the Health Care Blues” will once again present a stellar showcase of some of the best talent in Portland. Two stages of entertainment will include the Norman Sylvester Band, Terry Robb and Marilyn Keller. And host Carl Wolfson will briefly explain how the U.S. healthcare system has failed us and how to make a change. All profits for the event will go to Health Care for All-Oregon (HCAO), a statewide organization spreading the word.
A group that has been affected more than most are the musicians of our town. Clubs have closed for various reasons over the years, and pay is even lower than it was thirty years ago. Even with full time jobs the Portland music community is hurting. A tight group that loves to support each other, they hold regular fundraisers for players that are ill. But even a successful fundraiser can’t make much of a difference. Costs of medicine and procedures have skyrocketed. People that are self-employed can’t buy policies way out of their price range.
That’s why over the last five years, band leader Norman Sylvester and his wife Paula have worked hard to book entertainment for this popular event. Last year the Festival pulled in 750 people and netted $24,000. Our goal this year is $40,000.
Norman and Paula don’t have to look far to find tragic examples of a system that isn’t working. In fact they are putting together a “Go Fund Me” for friend Frankie “Funk Master” Redding. Frankie has been playing in the Portland area since he was fifteen. He would sit in the kitchen of the legendary Cotton Club on North Vancouver Ave. until he was called on stage. Later he was asked to play in their house band and backed some of the greats of the music business like Etta James and Tyrone Davis.
Over 55 years he has played in over a dozen bands. Insurance costs were always out of the question and he now faces a plethora of health problems. Eleven years ago Jan Bisconer, a fan and friend donated her kidney to him. As grateful as he was, years of diabetes and complications have taken its toll. He now cannot play a full set. The new, smaller apartment that he moved to with the help of Rob Shoemaker and Rob’s son Paul, won’t fit his equipment. which is the worst blow of all. For Frankie, and many musicians in Portland, their music is who they are, it’s their lifeblood. With all this. his Medicaid doesn’t cover his prescription drugs, his pain-killers or his dental care needs.
One of the stand-outs at the Inner City Blues Festival is always Shoehorn, a tap dancer PLUS saxophone player, among many other talents Shoehorn left his home in the Midwest at 17 and toured the United States, playing his harmonica for his supper. Sometimes sleeping in the woods or on a friend’s floor to give himself a crash course on becoming an entertainer. During his stay in New Orleans, an idol of his, harmonica wizard, Sonny Perry, gave him a piece of advice: “the music business is not easy; see how many needs you can fill; don’t play just one instrument.” Shoehorn further honed his tap dance and learned the saxophone and more, as well as singing. He has toured around the U.S. and even internationally as far away as Russia.
Comes a time when a wandering man wants to settle down, and he did just that in Portland. Shoehorn married, started a family and now has two daughters, one 20 and in college, another 17. A local favorite for years, Shoehorn has always been determined to pay his way, like so many other musicians. But it has taken considerable extremes to do so. Both his children were born at home; they paid out-of-pocket for their midwife and prenatal visits. A luckily healthy family, there were two visits over the years to the emergency room. His wife once, plus his daughter broke a tooth. Both emergencies took a year to pay off the medical cost. He is now thankful for Oregon Healthy Kids, because the girls are covered as dependents. What if one of his children had had a chronic illness or dire emergency? The outcome might have been less positive. That’s always in the back of the minds of many musicians.
This year in Oregon, 300,000 people still lack access to health insurance. In addition, 8,000 families will suffer health care-related bankruptcies. Six hundred people will die because they lack affordable health care. Let’s work together to spread the word that we can “Heal the Health Care Blues.”