here’s what happened.
round 3 of the competition was at the river room, a restaurant with large windows as see-through walls and a ceiling that changed colors constantly like an indecisive kaleidoscope. it was located at the top of riverbank state park, perched on the edge of the hudson – a few blocks from my apartment, conveniently enough. there was the washington bridge all strung up in lights and the shimmering blue water and the craggy hillside that was so beautiful, you had to be reminded that you were looking at jersey. my mother thought it looked like san diego – san francisco, even. harlem can always surprise you.
aside from taking time to talk to God and warming up my throat with some vocal excercises and a pot of lapsang souchong tea, i don’t remember what i did to prepare for the competition that day. i remember thinking that there was nothing that i could do to get ready, that in a way there is no “getting ready” at all. me in that moment was the summation of every voice lesson, every music learning situation, every gig that i ever did anywhere. and because everything compounds everything else, all those lessons i learned elsewhere – from waiting tables to that crummy soul-destroying day job – got me ready for this moment, too.
still and all, i wasn’t taking anything for granted. i needed some objectivity and a lot of feedback so i took a voice lesson the day before, from nancy marano, one of the judges from the first 2 rounds. i have to say that i love her voice – and as a vocalist, i honestly can’t remember the last time i heard someone sing and something sparked in me and i thought, wow. her voice is so warm and so full of feeling, it almost hurts to listen to her. she is so for real – there’s just no other way to put it. as finalists, the organizers of jazzmobile offered us a free voice lesson with a select group of teachers so i called her but her daughter was getting married. after the 2nd round, she gave me her card.
taking a lesson from her was the thing that made me refocus and change things up in my approach. i got rid of the songs that i had chosen and went with 2 songs that she and i picked out of her numerous fake books. most importantly, i got into the swing of things – inside the swing of the song, with phrasing choices, rhythm variations and other harmonic ideas. as nancy herself so eloquently put it: she didn’t teach me anything new. she reminded me of what i’d already known. i know what that’s like, when you’re cleaning out your closet and you find a dress you thought you gave away. and you put it on and it looks amazing on you and that whole other part of you that lights up whenever you wear it is suddenly in bloom in this abrubt surreal way that is so compelling and visceral, it makes babies and small children wave at you in the street like they know you. yeah, that’s what its like.
that’s what i brought into the 3rd round with me when i showed up on my friend’s arm, wearing my favorite silk DVF wrap dress and heels that caused enough pain to slightly distract me.
the place was packed. thankfully, there were 2 videographers and 3 photographers – though who knows who was “official” and who wasn’t. i was relieved that there was documentation. as luck would have it, i was dead last. not an especially long wait, but i didn’t have the luxury of getting it overwith and then lounging on the patio afterwards – though i did have a chance to tell naisha that my friend said that nancy was basically yoda and i was luke skywalker, and that the force was strong in me and she basically showed me how to use it. he’s quite the star wars geek. he can draw those george lucas comparisons to any situation. yoda, it seems, is everywhere.
my performance was a total blur. i can tell you that i was somewhat surprised that no one else mentioned that it was juneteenth. so i did. and i said my songs were about the south, sort of. and then i sang “willow weep for me” and “gone with the wind”. (heh.) i remember feeling that i did my best as i sank into my chair, and that filled me with sweet relief and a blissful kind of glee. i don’t think i could have lived with myself if i crapped out or something.
the judges disappeared, we did a little jam session, and then alyson the mistress of ceremonies sang and then they came back out and someone passed a slip of paper to her and she called the first name. emilio cruz, who makes beautiful horn lines out of nowhere. out came that gigantic check. he had a whole table cheering for him. it was lovely.
and then there was this weighty pause. and suddenly i realized that my stomach was flip-flopping all over the place – not because i was nervous but because i was starving. besides that pot of tea, i hadn’t eaten anything all day long. as that thought dawned on me, alyson called my name but before she did, she blurted: it’s my baby girl! that’s how it clicked in my head that i’d won.
i went up to the stage amid a flurry of cameras and flash. i felt my legs shake and want to give way. as we took pictures with the officials, the judges and anyone else, i couldn’t stop saying thank you. (i still can’t.)
i feel justified and vindicated and validated and released, all at once. i suppose i could say that i’m happy but that’s what i am, anyway. it was more than that. it’s a beautiful thing, to feel so much love from so many people, all at once. it was pure joy.