Music is medicine for Nance Vixen
By Anthony Welch
Jazz vocalist and percussionist Nance Vixen has never forgotten about the dream she had when she was in grade school.
“I had a dream about singing in an intimate, small venue,” she said. “That stayed with me forever.”
Born into a strict southern family (mandatory Sunday school and church every week until age 18), Vixen became infatuated with gospel singing at a very young age.
“Harmony singing was attractive, but soulful music was what touched me most,” Vixen said. “Those young years are what drove me to seek truth through meditation and resulted in my trips to an Indian ashram as an adult.”
Early musical influences for Nance were the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Eagles, Poco, Aretha Franklin and 5th Dimension. “So much great music was being introduced via radio,” she said.
More obscure and very influential artists were Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, Joan Armatrading, Wendy Waldman, Karla Bonoff, Laura Nyro – all women of color.
“My history also ignited a rebellious spirit to honor joy through music and singing. I was told that ‘entertainers, singers all end up in the bathroom with a needle in their arm,’” she added. “I smoked weed and had my first beer at 13, went to all the rock concerts I could get to. I tried all the drugs I could get my hands on (minus needles). I was a rebellious hippie child.”
At age 17, Vixen joined a band and started seeking out voice teachers and other band opportunities. She performed in wedding bands, bar bands and Top 40 bands. She married and moved to Connecticut before getting divorced and returning to San Diego.
She sang five nights a week in the resort circuit, including the Hotel Del Coronado. She also started learning more about Latin rhythms and she and another woman fronted a band singing in Portuguese at certain gigs.
“I knew it was a great opportunity, and I knew I needed to find a great vocal coach,” Vixen said. “I found a wonderful coach in Martin Grusin.”
In 2003, Vixen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She stayed with her parents until their passing, and then decided California had grown too crowded. So she ventured to Colorado.
“I moved to Colorado for natural healing, acupuncture – I wanted to know all of it and all of it was much more affordable here than any other state at the time,” Vixen said. “I love the mountains. I don’t miss the ocean, though I do go visit.”
While living in California, Nance performed five nights a week, but also held down a corporate job during the day, working five days a week.
“I was in my 20s then. I had way more energy,” she said.
However, the cancer diagnosis changed everything.
“After my diagnosis with cancer, I stopped everything except music,” Nance said. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to survive this, I’m going to thrive it.’ I started supplementing gigs by teaching voice. You do other things to make money, but it’s still music.”
Coincidentally, Nance said she writes her best music during tough times.
“The (songs) I think are marketable come out of pain and tragedy. People that have gone through pain and tragedy; it either softens them and makes them more reflective or it makes them bitter,” she said. “The best way is to be reflective and grow.”
As of January, Nance is 16 years free of cancer.
“I use food as medicine. I’ve been researching for 16 years do I stay alkaline? What foods are acidic? It’s an ongoing thing,” she added.
Nance wrote many songs during her battle with cancer. One that stands out, however, is about the guy she was dating at the time.
“It’s a song called ‘Smooth Cat Daddy.’ When I was diagnosed, I knew that the man I was dating at the time was not going to be up for any of this and wasn’t going to be there. He took the approach, ‘I’m here for you,’ but I knew he wouldn’t stick to those words,” she said. “We went to this really nice bar overlooking the lake. I had a wig on. By then, my hair was gone. He had a few friends meet us there. One of his friends said, “I really like your hair Nance,’ so I lifted it up and handed it to him. Of course, the guy I was dating was mortified. I get joy out of that. I kind of like to shock people, but I don’t like to offend people. The worst thing you can be is just kind of boring and safe. And I don’t stay safe.”
In 2014, Nance took up hand drumming.
“I loved it. It infused such inspiration for me, and it took me away from the voice and not focusing on it so much,” she said.
Nance started learning Latin rhythms and how to sing while playing percussion. It added a new element to her repertoire. While she’s performed solo gigs, she prefers making music with others.
“A lot of the material I choose is songs that people remember but don’t get played out. A lot of people remember them and they love them, music from the 30s and 40s, back when music was different,” Vixen said. “Like Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, a scat hero of mine Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau — my all-time vocal hero. You don’t have to just do cookie-cutter classic rock or Top 40. You can, I guess. It just seems kind of boring to me. I live to be inspired and I look to inspire others.”
Vixen’s interest in alternative healing and “staying away from doctors and hospitals” has led her to learn about the impact of music on health and how it impacts Alzheimer’s.
“Who knows what’s going to happen? I’m 60. It just doesn’t feel right to say it, but it’s the truth,” Vixen said. “Someday, my hearing might go. I’m getting elderly. I feel like as long as the spirit is young and you can laugh, and can remember we’re all vibrational spirits. We don’t have to be old. What 60 and 70 is today, is not what our parents were. The attitude was, ‘Let’s just get comfortable in our recliner and watch TV.’ So I stay active with yoga and meditation and eating well without forcing myself to be on a diet. If I want cheese or I want steak, I’m going to have it. That’s my approach, and I’m going to cling to it until it doesn’t work.”
Vixen also volunteers as a companion for hospice in her spare time.
“I was with my mom when she passed, and I was honored. I’ve done it for a friend as well. In India, in meditation, you dove into the passing and what happens to us,” she said. “I find it fascinating. They’re at a place where they’re moving along and facing it. I feel like I’m good at it. Most people can’t handle the conversation. I want to be a part of making a nicer existence for us. We need to have more options when we get older. That’s the direction I’m going.”
That all goes along with Vixen’s “prescription for youth.”
“Meditate. Remain playful. Be kind. And stay rebellious.”
You can see videos of Nance performing on her YouTube channel. You can hear some of her recordings at https://soundcloud.com/nancevixen/sets/nance-vixen-jazz-studio. Also, find NV Music on Facebook.