Schizophrenic Musician Inspires Film, Foundation The Soloist — an upcoming film starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. — tells the story of a street musician, who is also a schizophrenic savant, named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Now, Ayers' family has started a foundation to support people with mental illnesses who are also artistically gifted.
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Schizophrenic Musician Inspires Film, Foundation

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Schizophrenic Musician Inspires Film, Foundation

Schizophrenic Musician Inspires Film, Foundation

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TONY COX, host:

An upcoming film starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. follows the story of a street musician who is also a schizophrenic savant. "The Soloist" tells the true story of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. For years, he lived in Los Angeles' homeless wasteland known as Skid Row. There, among the junkies and prostitutes, he played Beethoven on his beat- up violin.

Since then, he has played in some of the most hallowed halls of music. And now, Ayers' family has started a new foundation in his name to support programs for people with a mental illness who are artistically gifted. Joining me is Tony Moore, the CEO of the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation and the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Anthony Ayers. Welcome to News and Notes, Tony.

Mr. TONY MOORE (CEO, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Tell me a little bit more about your brother-in-law. What is his mental disability and how long has he had it?

Mr. MOORE: Nathaniel has been diagnosed as schizophrenic. It actually happened in the '70s when he was attending Juilliard. After that, he actually dropped out of Julliard. He lived on the streets in Cleveland for a while and then moved to L.A. So, for more than 30 years, he actually had lived on the streets.

COX: What - how did he get his formal musical training? You mentioned Juilliard, but had he been trained prior to going to Juilliard?

Mr. MOORE: He had. He was trained - he's from Cleveland, Ohio. He actually went to the Cleveland Music Settlement in Cleveland, Ohio and attended Ohio University for a while. He is a classically trained bass musician, upright bass is what he was actually trained on, and that's what he played while at Juilliard.

COX: Now, when he came to the - he came to Los Angeles, I'm assuming he came here as a homeless person?

Mr. MOORE: He did. He moved to Los Angeles as a homeless person living on the streets down in Skid Row, and which is where he was discovered playing a violin. As I said, he was classically trained on the bass, but living on the streets, it was difficult for him to get around with the big bass, and so therefore, he self-taught the cello and the violin.

COX: Now, it was the violin and not the cello that he was playing when he encountered Steve Lopez, the columnist from the L.A. Times?

Mr. MOORE: That's correct. He had a torn-up, tattered violin with two strings remaining on it. And he was playing those two strings when Steve Lopez, looking for a story, stumbled across him and knew immediately - he didn't have his violin case open. He wasn't begging for money. But as he listened, he can tell that there was more to the story, and he had some serious training.

COX: Now we have a clip from the movie trailer. Robert Downey Jr. plays the role of the newspaper reporter, Steve Lopez, and of course, Jamie Foxx plays the role of Nathaniel who was discovered playing downtown. Here is that clip.

(Soundbite of movie "The Soloist")

(Soundbite of cello playing)

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (As Steve Lopez) Hi. This is Steve Lopez from the L.A. Times. I'm calling to see if a Nathaniel Ayers attended your school.

Unidentified Man #1: He was the most gifted kid I've ever met.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) I'm going to write a column about Nathaniel.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) People heard that you're just playing with two strings. Some of them thought you might want something better to work with.

Mr. JAMIE FOXX: (As Nathaniel Ayers) I can't cover that.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) It's a gift.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Steve Lopez) What does he have, schizophrenia?

Mr. FOXX (Actor): (As Nathaniel Ayers) Are you flying that plane?

Unidentified Man #2: No, I'm right here.

COX: So that's from the movie. Where is Nathaniel now?

Mr. MOORE: Nathaniel is still living currently in an apartment in Los Angeles.

COX: And how did he get from the streets to an apartment?

Mr. MOORE: With a lot of help, a lot of prodding, a lot of support. Steve Lopez worked tirelessly to try and convince Nathaniel to move out off the streets. What happened was when Steve discovered Nathaniel, he wrote a series of articles about Nathaniel and his journey from Juilliard to Skid Row. The community responded very positively to that - to those articles and started sending gifts - instruments, violins, cellos, other musical instruments to Steve, and Steve would then take them to Nathaniel.

He was concerned that Nathaniel was now carrying around multiple musical instruments on the streets, and the streets of Los Angeles, especially Skid Row, can be very dangerous. And so Steve started working with LAMP communities to try and convince Nathaniel that it was too dangerous on the streets and he needed to move indoors. LAMP communities end up building a studio for Nathaniel where Nathaniel would go and play. And after several, well, probably a year or so of convincing and prodding by Steve Lopez, Nathaniel finally move into an apartment.

COX: Now, is he getting treatment?

Mr. MOORE: He is not getting medical treatment. He does not take medication. He says it stops him from hearing the music. It's what he says. But realistically, when Nathaniel went through his bout with schizophrenia in the '70s, the medication was a lot stronger, had a lot more side effects. He has done shock therapy and he is very resistant to taking medication.

COX: So, talk about your foundation that you begun in his name. What is your aim exactly?

Mr. MOORE: Well, Nathaniel's sister, Jennifer Ayers Moore, is my sister-in-law. And she grew up seeing Nathaniel as he transformed from the brother that she knew and loved to the stranger with schizophrenia. She also witnessed her mother trying frantically to find help for Nathaniel. And so, her vision was to start a foundation that would provide support to people that suffer from mental illnesses as well as their caregivers. The mission of the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation is we support art programs at mental health and arts organizations that serve the mentally ill, and we place a special emphasis on the artistically gifted.

COX: Now, Nathaniel must see these movie posters that are all over town, all over the country, I imagine, for the film, "The Soloist," with his image or with the image, I should say, of Jamie Foxx playing him. What's it been like for Nathaniel to see his unlikely story immortalized in a major Hollywood film?

Mr. MOORE: Well, Nathaniel doesn't pay a lot of attention to that. He's actually seen the movie. He went to a screening of the film itself, and he's not into the capitalistic society, you know. All of the attention, he doesn't really care for. His world is music. I

mean, to this day, he'll play - last time we were there in L.A., we actually had the official launch of the foundation on January 28th at the California Endowment in Los Angeles, at which time, we had entertainment by Robert Gupta who's the youngest violinist with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra. And Nathaniel played as well. He played his cello. So he attended the launch and he saw all of the people that were there, but his world is music and that's where he's at peace. He closes his eyes, he throws his head back, and he just gets lost in his music.

COX: Tony, congratulations. Thank you. Good luck with the foundation.

Mr. MOORE: Thank you, Tony. We appreciate the time.

COX: That was Tony Moore, the CEO of the Nathaniel Anthony Ayers Foundation. He joined me from the Doppler Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.

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