Berklee Today

Coda: When Life Asks You to Play

JoJo David '94 and his wife Anne Marie David '93. JoJo is director of the vocal jazz ensemble at Boston College and director of music at Sacred Heart Church in Newton Center, Massachusetts. He is also cofounder of Arrhae Press Music (www.arrhaepress.com).
Photo by Gary Gilbert
 

Seldom a day goes by when I don't pick up my instrument and play. By trade, I'm a vocalist and a teacher, and as such I bear the blessing and the burden of having my instrumental gear wherever I go. I'm ever-thankful each time I see gig-bag-wielding guitarists, cart-rolling drummers, and bassists with their upright axe on wheels. From the gear standpoint alone, singing is relatively low maintenance. So I will admit up front that ease of access and transportation were key considerations in my instrument selection. My confession, how-ever, ends here, because once the band has plugged in and the brasswinds are warmed, after the strings and percussion are tuned and the reeds are moist, making music is a level playing field. The downbeat does not discriminate. The burden I referred to earlier is a self-challenge all musicians face—am I ready to play? Moreover, take one step back, take the instrument away, and the same call beckons. In August of 1998, life beckoned me when cancer took my instrument away.

"Mediastinal mass," the Seattle ER doctor said to me in a measured tone, "The X-ray shows a mass in your chest—could be pneumonia, could be lymphoma." Heading off a telling silence, she continued, "Because of this potential, I feel it would be best for you to have this checked out thoroughly back in Boston, should you need further intensive follow-up. You need to see your physician as soon as possible." The sterile exam room air was still, in a calm-before-the-storm sort of way. My eyes were fixed on the X-ray, trying to distinguish my life from an episode of the "X-Files." I couldn't speak, not only because I was stunned into silence, but also because this malignancy in my chest had robbed me of my voice, like a thief in the night. Toneless, my speech consisted of nothing more than forced air and consonants, akin to a saxophone without a reed or a Miles Davis whisper.

Within days of our return to Boston, I found myself on an operating room table undergoing a biopsy of my chest, and 24 hours later I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Trying to grasp some thread of hope, I sought a resolution to the then-trivial matter of my voice. Will it return? If so, when? If not, why? All the oncologists, laryngologists, and speech therapists agreed: we don't know. Nobody knew. All I knew was that I faced a terminal disease at the age of 32, and not only did I carry the immense weight of intense emotions, but I lost access to my most effective tool to express the pain—my instrument, my voice.

Due to the aggressive chemotherapy and radiation ahead, I had to postpone indefinitely a full-time teaching position offered to me just weeks prior to my diagnosis. I also had to end my music ministry at church, which was a tremendous disappointment. I had built a vocational and spiritual life on the use of my instrument, and my outlets for expression were diminished. Despite my upcoming treatment regimen, I decided to continue teaching at Boston College as vocal director of BC bOp! the college's jazz ensemble.

It was the first day of rehearsal, just three days after chemotherapy: "Congratulations and welcome to the group," I began, still shocked by the absence of tone in my raspy voice. "My name is JoJo David, and, as you know, I was sick this past weekend and missed most of the audition process." The enthusiasm in the room was rap-idly giving way to uncertainty. "My voice sounds like this because of my illness. I have cancer, and consequently I've lost my voice." Jaws literally dropped on the seven incoming freshmen while the energy from the returning members remained steadfast. "Everything else in my life, as you might imagine, has been put on hold. The one thing I've committed to is this group. I will be sick at times, but when I can be here, I will. This is what I do. I ask that when we're together, we bring our best." As I spoke, I could feel bits of hair fall down the back of my shirt, a side effect of the chemotherapy. At this point I couldn't even imagine what these students must have been thinking. So, as was my method when I didn't know what else to do, I asked them to sing. Within the next half hour they were finding their way musically and personally. So was I.

I continued in my dual roles of being led through my illness and leading my students in spite of it. This was all new territory for me, and my methods and means of doing everything were now different. When I spoke to the ensemble, I couldn't raise my voice. I couldn't animate for expression or model how to deliver a phrase. All I had were my ears, an aural design in my head, and limited words and energy to transcribe that design. But the group improved at an unprecedented rate as the semester progressed. They came prepared for each rehearsal, and morale was high.

The accumulation of chemotherapy treatments was taking a sizable toll on my body and spirit. I was frequently nauseous, and I missed more than a few rehearsals. The pain of chemotherapy was especially acute on the days I missed time with my singers. My voice was still impaired. Four months after treatments began the prognosis regarding my voice was that it probably wasn't coming back. The tumor in my chest took up enough space in the cavity to crush the nerve that operates the left vocal cord. Doctors believed that once the chemotherapy began to shrink the tumor, the nerve would mend and begin to operate again. A leading specialist in the field of vocal disorders predicted that if I didn't have use of my voice within a few months, I probably wouldn't ever have use of it again. More than a few months passed, and still no sound. My voice had become a casualty of war. Medicine was now fighting the battle, and though I felt genuinely fortunate to be alive, the gift I had lost made the gratitude bittersweet.

But my loss somehow transformed into a deeper, mutual gain. In the singers I heard a spirit in the music, an essence I thought was lost from me. I felt empathy with them in their approach to the music. As the group attained artistry within and amongst themselves, they delivered to me a new understanding of my "instrument." I saw my gift realized in those with whom I shared it. Our relationship as an ensemble manifested this synergy. Through the mingling of talent and belief, we created a mutual voice and instrument. At the fringes of my life, connections such as these sustained me. We experienced art and soul, a prelude to a miracle.

On my 33rd birthday, for no apparent reason and void of medical rationale, a single tone resurfaced in my voice, and though it would come and go, it sounded. The next week I gained a whole step in pitch, and like a brass player, I practiced singing long tones on these two pitches. Step by step I increased my range. My voice was returning to me like vision to blind Bartimeus. Amazing grace, the sound was sweet to me. And it came back just in time.

The doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute concluded that my treatments had failed, the tumor was growing, and a bone marrow transplant was my last chance for survival. I didn't get to see my vocalists the rest of the semester. In April of 1999, they went on to compete at the Reno Jazz Festival and dedicated their performance to me. Meanwhile, back in Boston, I endured more life-sapping treatments in preparation for my bone marrow transplant in May.

With graceful strength, my wife Anne Marie was my constant companion in that extraordinary journey. Our community in Boston supported us tremendously throughout those months, while family and friends throughout the country flew in like angels to our aid. To help offset our expenses, a benefit concert was organized, featuring many of my musical connections; I felt the prayers lift me as tangibly as wind on my skin. This deep goodness and my faith, together with medicine and holistic care, converged to save my life that spring. It is a miracle.

Today, cancer-free and with full voice, I sing. Whether I'm in class, in the recording studio, in church, in the shower, everyday I play my instrument because I can. From a medical and spiritual perspective, I live a true "re-mission." In my search for meaning in all this, gratitude swells up in me like an oncoming rush of tears. I offer up thanks for what I have today, in spite of what I don't; thanks for what I can do, in spite of what I can't; thanks for who I am, in spite of who I am. Like incense I offer up thanks for this very moment.

And thanks for a special group of singers. They offered me an instrument when life asked if I was ready to play.