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Renowned jazz vocalist overcomes illness and lends her voice to Latvian students

By Gabriella Wyatt For the Pocono Record

Jazz vocalist and teacher Janet Lawson of Minisink Hills thrives on guiding her students in finding their voices through the universal language of music. She says that this summer, the process was reciprocal. The Grammy nominated singer was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy and Lyme disease, progressive conditions which paralyzed her vocal cords and reduced her four-octave range to limited speak-singing.

By 2002, the illnesses had become disabling, rendering Lawson unable to teach and perform during one of her bi-yearly trips to Latvia. "My spirit died," Lawson says. Particularly painful was the inability to share her craft with the people of Latvia, with whom she has shared a special musical and personal connection since her first visit in 1995.

Lawson's craft has led her through New York, Paris, London and Copenhagen, but she says that her ties to Latvia have been a unique connection of the heart. "There's just a feeling of pure love." Lawson says. "It's a total heart connection."

During her hiatus from singing, Lawson feared losing that connection. But through several years of intensive rehabilitative treatment that includes acupuncture and a form of neurological therapy called Feldenkraist, Lawson is once again connecting to students and audiences through her voice.

This summer, Lawson returned to Latvia to teach and perform. Her trip marks a musical and personal return to form, allowing her to resume her nine-year collaboration with the V International Music Camp in Ogre, and to perform at the LIZA, Riga's newest jazz club.

"It took something out of me," she says of her illness. "And I didn't know it until I got it back." Lawson's therapy work has rehabilitated her voice, and the ability to again teach in Lavia has helped her rediscover the job of music itself.

She considers her bout with illness as a blessing of sorts, marking a new period in her development as an artist and instructor. "I think I'm a better teacher because of it," she says. "My style of teaching has become more holistic." She adds, "I'm aware of the connection between one's being and the way one expresses themselves." As a result, Lawson brought a new dimension to the music camp this year. Her program, Jazz Journey, traces the evolution of jazz from its origins in West Africa through the Caribbean and United States, and invites the students to experiment with scat and improvisation in an open and encouraging environment. "My whole thing is improvisation," she says. "I work to help other people find that place inside themselves that's free." An adjunct professor at New York University and the New School, Lawson has also collaborated on cirricula and conducted programs and clinics across the United States and Europe. The students of Latvia present a unique challenge, and Lawson notes that finding that "free place" is often difficult for the highly disciplined, classically trained singers and instrumentalists of the camp, who come from the best music schools in Latvia to train with the camp's world-renowned faculty.

"The students are just brilliant," she says. Ranging in age from late teens to early 20's the young artists are already experienced musicians accustomed to striving for excellence. And while Lawson is equally serious about her own craft, she's adamant that in addition to growing musically, the students gain a greater sense of their own worth. It's something Lawson believes can be accessed through improvisation. "There were students who were terrified. They were able to find that place where they could let go," she says. "I want to give them the sense that they are bigger that this moment." The three-week "journey" culminated with a performance at the Ogre Cultural Center, in which students and faculty joined Lawson in performing "The Heart of Latvia," a piece Lawson composed as an expression of gratitude, incorporating jazz improvisation and traditional Latvian folk melody. At the end of her stay in Latvia, the students presented Lawson with recorded messages of warm regards and appreciation. "Thank you for telling me I'm special," one of the students said, adding, It's made me stronger."

"Special" became the central word of the camp program and was freely exchanged in Latvian and English during Lawson's stay. But Lawson says that the majority of the communication occurred through the music itself. "It speaks to us. Music is universal," she says. Her recent experience adds another dimension to an already distinguished career. A Baltimore native, Lawson is the daughter of professional musicians. She studied with musicians Wayne Marsh and Hall Overton, and began performing as a teenager. Lawson has appeared with Duke Ellington, Tommy Flanagan, Bob Dorough, Clark Terry and also with the Alvin Ailey dance company as lead soprano. in 1981, she was nominated for the Best Female Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy. She didn't win, but she admires the woman who did - Ella Fitzgerald.