Two days before Johnny Harper’s memorial service at Freight and Salvage I began to have a meltdown, touched off by our single rehearsal for the event. We met, masked, in a practice room at the Jazz School with a quarter-grand piano, a separate keyboard, a full drum kit, basses, guitars, two saxophones and a trumpet. Although the band quickly got into their groove, the singers could not hear themselves or the other singers, even though we were all singing on mics. At least two of us strained our voices trying to be heard.

I had wanted to be part of the ensemble for the final two numbers, “The Weight” and “They All Ax’d For You,” both songs Johnny and I loved. He related to “The Weight” as the story of a man taxed with the burdens of others, and gloried in the pure, playful fun of “They All Ax’d For You,” which he used to close many band shows. I had written a verse shortly after Johnny died where the unruly denizens of heaven and hell called for a bandleader and I wanted to sing it:

Went on over to the other side and the all ax’d for you.
The heavenly host was out of hand and they needed somebody to lead the band
Went on over to the other side and they all ax’d for you
The devils ax’d and the angels ax’d and Saint Peter ax’d me, too.

What I hadn’t counted on in my imagination was the keys chosen for these numbers: “They All Ax’d” called for the second lowest note I can sing and “The Weight,” too, sat in my low range. I have a typical soprano fondness for my high range and mid range — they’re my comfort zones as a singer. Singing low takes more breath than singing high, and more breath still to produce volume.

Although I enjoyed hearing the band play Johnny Harper classics, such as “Loafin’ on the Water,” getting to hear the horn section, and the general camaraderie of the reunion rehearsal after months of Covid-induced isolation, I started to obsess about how bad I sounded, how little vocal power I had, etc. Over the next few hours that morphed into my personal nemesis, the old refrain of “I am not good enough,” with its corollaries, “I didn’t practice enough. I didn’t warm up enough. I should have learned to read charts properly by now. Johnny was right, I don’t belong on a stage. I feel like a bad singer.”

I wrote separately to two other friends and singers who had been at the rehearsal, wondering if I should back out of the ensemble numbers. One said he heard me struggling for power on “The Weight” and suggested that any number of people could sing it, but that I should sing my verse on “They All Ax’d.” He later posted on my Facebook page: “You are more than good enough. You are great!!,” addressing my demons directly. My other friend said I belonged in the ensemble.

Monday, August 22nd, I cried all day after teaching a writing class. I also arranged to meet another friend on Zoom, a singer with a beautiful low range, to ask for advice. We spent over an hour together, discussing vocal exercises, melodic variation, visualizations, head positioning, mic technique, attitude and ego. She was warm and supportive and helped bolster me to give the songs another try.

Ironically, the song I expected to shine on, an original love song called “Ingenue,” that I had written for Johnny when I fell in love with him, also fell apart in rehearsal. I had asked one of Johnny’s piano players to accompany me, which he did, but we didn’t set up a guitar mic for me. He couldn’t hear the guitar, watched my hands for the chord changes. We were not in sync. I didn’t know what to do, so I said nothing, hoped for the best and feared the worst.

The day of the show yet another friend spontaneously recommended some vocal warm-ups. I did those. I practiced my low solos. I played through “Ingenue” a couple of times. I bathed, dressed in dark red chiffon, packed a sandwich, two granola bars, an arsenal of spare masks, water, Kleenex, lipstick and dress shoes, picked up my guitar and walked to the bus stop. I got off the bus at the top of University Avenue and walked slowly to Freight and Salvage in mid afternoon heat, arriving well before my call.

I watched the sound techs set up from a seat in the front row. Friends began to trickle in: Abby Dees with two guitars, Jerry White and his wife Sally, who began to set up an array of snacks in the green room and immediately offered me a delicious blackberry soda. When our music director arrived I found out that I was supposed to have made signs for the dressing rooms (Oops, I thought I was just supposed to tape them up), so I took my one spare piece of paper and lettered a quick sign.

When sound check started, I threaded my way through cables and instruments to reach the microphones at the far side of the stage. I practiced bending mics down to my lips, being several inches shorter than every other singer. I missed my entrance on “The Weight,” having misread the notes on the arrangement. Fortunately, the sound was good and I could hear myself. We went through part of “They All Ax’d For You” and I retired to the green room to eat half a sandwich, grab a water bottle and apply lipstick under my mask (when you sing in public during the pandemic you wear a mask whenever you are not onstage, but you need lipstick so that your mouth will show up on video). Then I went off to greet attendees in the lobby. Meanwhile the sound check continued behind the closed doors of the concert hall.

The doors finally opened to a slide show of photos of Johnny played over three of his songs. When the last note ended, a procession of horns, snare drum and tambourine began to snake through the aisles of the Freight in a cheerful New Orleans-style second line. People fell in line, danced in their seats, waved scarves. The M.C.s grooved onstage before the last note ended and they spoke their words of welcome to Johnny’s family and friends.

We settled down to speeches. Speeches — you never know what you are going to get. We were treated to a glimpse of young Johnny in military maneuvers at private school, getting a perfect score on his SATs and paying a backstage visit to Hoyt Axton. Larry Miller gave us a beautifully-worded account of Johnny’s nonmusical passions, including Paladin and Nero Wolfe, with thoughtful reflections on Johnny as the good guy fighting the good fight, unable to ask for help. His remarks reminded me of a line Johnny often quoted from “The Right Stuff”: “Do you wish to declare state of emergency?” The answer was always no.

Dale Geist gave us a portrait of guitar lessons with Johnny, whom he credited with “saving his life.” Jennifer Jolly gave us another list of things Johnny loved, including Star Trek and vanilla ice cream. People touched on Johnny’s flaws (perfectionism, arrogance, stubbornness), but spoke of his vision, his generosity, his breadth and depth of knowledge. His beloved niece, Lucy Lumsdaine, crowned the speeches with a testimony to Johnny’s deep love for her, his ferocious pursuit of ethics, and her own call for all those present to extend our compassion and care to one another.

At some point during the speeches pianist Ben Shemuel whispered, “Can we talk?”

He beckoned me into the backstage hallway.

“Can you stand so that I can see your hands when you play?”

He said I was his source for the rhythm or pulse of my tune.

“I’ll try,” I said.

When I took the stage to sing I explained that I needed to angle toward my accompanist. I played the intro. Ben came in along with my voice and we moved through five verses about falling in love: a roller coaster ride, a free fall, a siren song that nevertheless makes your heart sing with joy and hope.

To be continued…