I’ve been thinking about love. Jan’s pure love for, of music. That she was born to sing is undeniable. In an interview Kristen Bowers did more than ten years ago with Jan’s only remaining sister (at the time, this was 2003), Vera McKenna told stories about a small Jannie singing daily during her bath time. [I’ve written about this and will post for Thursday’s excerpt.] Apparently, she was singing from the start.
I want to tell you that most of the time, as I talk with folks, read about Jan, I feel ignorant. Sometimes, dumb. No, alright, not dumb. Deeply aware of my occluded view of Jan. And deeply humbled. I continue learning what I didn’t know I didn’t know. About Jan. About me.
We all knew we were in the presence of greatness. From the way the air around her parted as she glided down the main hallway. The deference all in her path bestowed upon her. That smile. That uncanny way of making you feel like the only person on earth when she stopped to talk to you. That genuine interest and care.
But as I think about Jan–which as you can imagine is day and night [I wake with images, thoughts, dreams]–I also must think about myself, how I came to be with her, what that meant to me. I feel a little sheepish in saying that I had no idea. At 18, I had no idea who I was moving toward, what I would find there. I went to Eastman because my teacher at Peabody Prep in Baltimore told me to. She told me to study with Jan DeGaetani, and I did what I was told. I went to Eastman because I wanted to learn to sing. I remember this distinctly: I didn’t love classical music or opera; I was passionate about musical theater, jazz, good pop. I told myself and anyone who asked, I’m going to Eastman to learn to sing well whatever I want to end up singing. It didn’t take long to understand that Jan was special, that she would change my life. It didn’t take long for me to want to please her, desperately. It didn’t take long for her to ignite my thinking, invite me to connect my creative self, my intelligence–well, my ability to love– to this music. What happened? I learned how to approach making art. I learned how to try. I learned how to live.
I am not a practicing or professional musician. What I remember about classical music from my Eastman days is scant. There’s a reason I don’t know movements and composers and periods: I’m not passionate about making, creating music, about listening to classical or new music, about knowing it. I don’t see it in my sleep. Hear it in my thinking. When I dream of Jan–and I do, often–and another singer who long ago was lodged for many reasons in my psyche, Dawn Upshaw, I dream of us at Eastman. In a studio. A classroom. On a stage. And I am always singing musical theater.
So, it’s logical that as I journey this year, finish my research, I learn again and again all I didn’t know, couldn’t know then about who Jan was. What I wouldn’t really comprehend after my years at Eastman as I moved away from music and toward new pursuits. I was too young and eager and drawn to her and Eastman for mostly emotional needs rather than propelled by a love for the art form. I wanted to please. I wanted to do right. I wanted to be seen as important and successful. I rarely imagined her outside the four walls of her studio, the ample stages where I saw her perform. I knew she had a house, children, loved to make soups, but I could hardly fathom any of this. I knew she traveled to sing, sometimes taking a semester sabbatical, but I could not, did not grasp the import of this performing life. The sun and moon and swirling stars were in that studio on the fourth floor. Nowhere else.
I think what I’m trying to say is that I am learning to know her now. That’s why I wanted to do this thing. I began by asking, who was this woman who chose art and why was it music? And I am finding out. I am surprised that I continue to be surprised by the simplest of truths: she loved music, people, life. She served art. It was the most important thing of all. Youth, desperate need, self-doubt, wanting to belong, to be loved and to succeed occluded my view. I was confused. I don’t think I followed Love to Eastman. But it was there that I found it.