Ottawa Citizen – After 17 years away, Stittsville’s Anne Lewis returns to jazz singing

The first time that Anne Lewis put her pursuit of music on hold, it was by choice, to raise a family as a single mom and work full-time in the public service.

The second time, almost a decade later, the Stittsville woman had to give up singing because of a life-or-death tradeoff. Surgery kept her from dying from thyroid cancer, but it also took a cruel toll on her vocal cords.

“I don’t know what was worse at the time, being faced with losing my life or not being able to sing,” Lewis recalls.

But this weekend, after tremendous effort to regain her singing voice, Lewis will return to performing in Ottawa. After a 17-year hiatus, Lewis will make her comeback at Options Jazz Lounge in the Brookstreet Hotel, singing classic songs that she’s treasured since she was young.

“I have missed it so much,” she says. “It has been part of me that I thought I lost forever.

“I’m going to sing again, just for the joy of singing.”

Lewis, 56, is the daughter of Kenneth Lewis, a former commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Her late father, she remembers, liked to dance with her mother to the show-tune performances of military big bands.

“I was exposed to so much of that sort of music. We were always watching on TV all the musicals, Easter Parade and Brigadoon, anything to do with Audrey Hepburn.”

Through her 30s, the self-taught singer kept busy in Ottawa, notably as the vocalist for the Bombast Blues Band, a fixture in ByWard Market bars. But in the mid-1990s, she also sang jazz, usually with the accomplished Ottawa-area pianists J.P. Allain and Art Lawless. Known then as Anne Wagner, she performed at the Ottawa and Montreal jazz festivals. Also, because Lewis has Stargardt disease, a hereditary retinal disorder that has left her legally blind, she took part in benefit concerts for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

She recorded two albums of original contemporary pop music, which live on digitally at her new website, annelewismusic.ca, along with tracks of her interpreting classic tunes such as God Bless The Child, Stormy Monday and When I Fall In Love with power and poise.

But after her marriage ended in the mid-1990s, Lewis needed to earn more money, and she found full-time work in the public service. “I parked my music for a number of years, until everything was settled,” she says.

Then, in the summer of 2004, when “life was starting to be really good again,” she was diagnosed with Stage III melanoma. “It almost cost me my life,” she remembers.

The cancer was treated surgically. But then four months later, Lewis was found to have thyroid cancer. She underwent another operation. “My voice wasn’t there. It was gone. I was so distraught.”

During her musical prime in the early 1990s, Lewis had won a song contest in Ottawa, for which the prize was a batch of musical gear including a keyboard and an amplifier. After she lost her voice, she got rid of the gear.

“I sold everything. It was horrible. I threw out everything that was related to music. I walked away from everything to do with music. I wouldn’t listen to music. It was just too painful.”

But in 2008, Lewis’s son was to be married, and he and his fiancee approached her about creating something as a gift for them. At first, Lewis thought she would write a poem, but out came a song.

Lewis worked with a speech pathologist to strengthen her voice. She returned to about “65-per-cent capacity,” she says, and “squeaked out” her song at the September 2008 wedding. But she discounted that performance before family and friends as a one-off.

Then in 2011, Lewis was in the shower, and she surprised herself. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m actually singing those As and Bs below middle C. This is crazy.’ I hung on to that. I thought maybe there’s hope.”

The speech pathologist examined Lewis and told her that some of her vocal strength was returning, especially in her alto range. In 2012 and 2013, Lewis practiced singing, up to three hours a day, “just really, really wanting to get it back.”

She retired from Treasury Board in July 2013. Since then, she’s been regaining her voice. “Now, I have 95 per cent of what I used to have,” she says.

She’s excited about her upcoming gig, and has prepared more than 30 songs to sing with a youthful rhythm section. “I love all of the songs,” she says. “I’ve been really careful in what I’ve chosen.”

Still, she adds: “I’m so scared.” In the middle of the night, she has wondered what she will do if her voice gives out in the middle of a set. She figures her accompanists could finish a set instrumentally.

But for Lewis, excitement about singing trumps fear. “It’s here right in front of me,” she says. “I simply want to sing.”

By Peter Hum, Ottawa Citizen (Oct 11, 2014)

Photo by Wayne Cuddlington, Ottawa Citizen

 

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