Lady Sang the Blues

Monica Janzen, photographed last month in Colorado Springs.
Anthony Camera

Monica Janzen first felt the lump in her breast eight years ago, when she was thirty. It was small, and her doctors said it was nothing. In fact, a month later it went away, and so she got on with her life as a computer consultant. She continued moonlighting as a singer, using her childhood nickname, Monni, as her stage name, picking up a gig here or there in Wichita's modest music scene.

The lump returned in the summer of 1999, just as Janzen, now living in Colorado Springs, was leaving on a six-week business trip to Austin. In a week it grew from the size of a nickel to that of a quarter. Nervous, she cut her trip short and hurried to Denver for a mammogram, then waited through a long weekend before learning she had breast cancer. The lump was malignant, and the cancer had already moved to her lymph nodes, which meant it could easily travel to the rest of her body.

Doctors combated the disease with a brutal regimen. They removed Janzen's right breast. Then her left. Then her ovaries. The doctors tried to hit all the places where they thought the cancer would likely spread -- all of the places that made her feel like a woman. She asked them a simple question when each new procedure was recommended: "Is this gonna cure me?" If they told her yes, she consented. Chemotherapy left her dog-sick for months; as soon as she felt better, it was back to the hospital for more treatments.

Before those treatments began, Janzen's doctor had told her to do something she'd always wanted to do. And so throughout her ordeal, she clung to the idea of making an album. This past spring, when she began to feel better, she assembled a band and found a producer. She also became an activist for local breast cancer causes. At the end of the summer, she recorded her debut CD, Colors of Life; by this fall, it had been released to Denver-area stores. But then the cancer returned, spreading throughout her body. Janzen's doctors told her she probably would not survive past the end of the year. Talk of a regional tour, of honing the band's potential, of the future, faded.

Instead, the talk turned to who would care for her two boys after she was gone. (It was decided that seven-year-old Zach and ten-year-old Josh would move to Kansas to live with one of Janzen's sisters in Wichita.) She got busy working with lawyers to set up wills and trust funds. And there were more doctors, and lots of pills, and visitors, who came to offer their support and love but seemed less prepared for Janzen's death than Janzen. That she'd finally put out a CD was scant consolation for anyone other than Janzen.

"I'm really glad to have gotten that done," she said during an interview last month at the Springs home of her sister, Gilda Ray.

But Janzen never wanted to put out just one album.

They used to call Monni the "sister of many colors" because she always got stuck with the colorfully mismatched hand-me-downs. "I looked like some child they kept in the basement," she remembered, referring to the lot of being the second youngest of twelve children. Born in the small town of Bastrop, in northern Louisiana, Monni and her large family moved to Wichita when she was four. Her mother was a school-bus driver who used to drop her own kids off, often shouting instructions to clean up the house or do the dishes before she returned from work. Her father, a disabled Vietnam vet, split just after the move. But he left the family his singing genes.

Encouraged by her older sisters, who remembered their father and were always singing tunes, Monni began to sing, too. Her sisters sang for fun, but she took voice lessons in school, and she took the lead when she was on stage. "Her voice had a lot more control," sister Gilda remembered.

The young singer sharpened her ear listening to singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Her mom loved swing-era jazz, so Monni listened to those albums, too. Her older siblings listened to Motown, and so did she. She played records over and over again, trying to get as close to the singer's tone and delivery as possible. As a teenager, she won a high school talent show, and when she was fifteen she sang at her brother's twenty-year high school reunion in Louisiana. There she met a Nashville music producer who wanted her to travel to Tennessee to record an album, but her mom wouldn't allow it. Hurt, Monni began thinking about pursuing a different path. Although she majored in music performance at Wichita State, she took a minor in computer science, a field she continued to pursue after graduation.  

In 1988 she met a piano player named Ken Janzen in Wichita. They began playing together, mostly at small bars and parties, and were married in 1989. Monni and Ken both talked about doing an album some day, but she was the family breadwinner, and work didn't leave a whole lot of time for other things. So she mostly filed her songs away. In 1991 she was transferred to St. Louis for half a year, then spent a year in San Antonio before returning to Wichita.

Still, Gilda knew Monni "always wanted to come back" to music, because "she always got it out and really wanted to work with it." So when friends or families got married, they'd call Monni to come sing a few tunes. For years it was just covers: Natalie Cole tunes, or Mariah Carey, or a little Whitney Houston. Eventually, Monni began writing her own material. She'd start with the lyrics, develop her chorus, fit the words into the melody they inspired. Then she'd send her work off to her husband, who would arrange the rest of the parts. "When it's your own, you can put more feelings into it," she explained.

In 1997 she was given the choice of being transferred to one of five cities; she chose Colorado Springs because she had family there. "Every time I'd go to a new city," she remembered, "I'd try to see what the music scene was like and see how hard it would be to get into it." Family connections came in handy in the Springs: A cousin, who used to play for R&B stalwarts like the Ohio Players and the Gap Band, helped her put together a band. Her sisters' Springs-based chiropractor suggested Monni get in touch with Frank Fanelli, who was auditioning acts for the Terrace Lounge at the famed Broadmoor Hotel. The Terrace sat about ninety people, and even with the modest lights, it was intimate enough for a performer to see everybody in the room. She auditioned in January, and by the time she got home, there was a message on her voice mail telling her she had the job.

Monni started singing Friday and Saturday nights that March. It was her first regular gig. A lot of her material was still made up of covers, like Mariah Carey's first hit, "Vision of Love," or James Brown's "I Feel Good" or Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street"; she'd even sing a little country, courtesy of Reba McEntire or Wynonna Judd. It didn't really matter. The crowds were small at first, but word of mouth -- largely provided by family members who dragged their friends and co-workers over to the Broadmoor -- quickly started to pack the place. The crowds ate up Janzen's smooth vocals, and the singer felt like gold. Full houses turned into standing room only, and eventually staff members were posted at the doors to turn people away. "People really still miss her," says Fanelli.

The adulation made Monni think, finally, that maybe she could have some sort of career as a singer. She'd already written some songs of her own and incorporated them into her live show. Her cancer diagnosis in the summer of 1999 propelled her to the next step: making her own album.

For the next six months, Monni underwent operations, treatments and regular chemotherapy. This past spring, with the chemo treatments behind her, she turned her focus toward getting her album in the can. Though it would be her first effort, she was determined to put out something worthwhile, because she found the current popular music scene wanting. "No one is doing their own thing," she said. "There are not really real singers anymore."

The band for the album started to come together one night at an Aurora bar called Wings, where some guys, including her husband, were hosting a jam session. Musicians and singers waited for their chance to impress. Monni, who was on her way to the airport, popped in to see Ken and quickly found herself on stage. She reached into her bag of covers and came up with Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" and a blues tune called "Night Life." She and Ken had encountered some hard times in their marriage, but they'd always worked well as musical partners. She also liked the sound coming from guitarist Bloys Donaldson.

Soon after, Monni hooked up with drummer Russell Roach, whom she saw performing at a LoDo nightclub, and he helped recruit Chris Harris. "I really love the bass, love how the bass moves me," she said. "I'm real sensitive to how well the bass and drums would be in sync with each other."  

The Janzens rented a house in Denver, and the band practiced in the basement for several weeks. The demand for precision is greater in the studio than it is on stage, and a few of the guys had never recorded before. "We knew it was a serious project for Monica," Donaldson said. "Everyone wanted to put their best foot forward for her." So the band woodshedded its music, went into the studio over the summer and laid down the album's twelve tracks in a brisk two days. During six days spread over the following two months, Monni laid down the vocals. She felt good throughout most of the recording, although she gradually began to experience headaches. She pushed them out of her mind.

According to Roach, the album was an attempt to meld jazz sophistication with rhythm and blues and hip-hop, and to leaven the mix with a pinch of reggae. Colors of Life more than meets these goals, spinning out one smooth, jazzy groove after another without sounding treacly or flimsy. While there are some up-tempo tunes, the heart of the album is more measured, softer. It's the kind of stuff that gives lounge music a good name: You sit back on an old bar stool or in a ratty leather chair, sip your drink in the dimness and enjoy the moment. Although the music is full of catchy hooks and solid ensemble playing, it's held together by its emotional subject matter.

One song, "I'll Just Walk Away," deals with Gilda's divorce. "Today I Finally Cried" was written for Monni's mother, who passed away two years ago. The driving title track, "Colors of Life," is about overcoming the trauma of years of sexual abuse committed by a former brother-in-law -- "See that little girl/in her sad sad world/She lost all her joy/when he used her like a toy" -- and ultimately strikes a redemptive note. (It helps that an abuse case against the former relative earlier this year led to his conviction and a prison sentence of eight years. "I got that big weight off my family's shoulders," Janzen said of her recent testimony.)

The album's best punches, though, are the songs that deal with the Janzens' crumbling marriage. (Monni filed for divorce in October.) In "Don't Need Me," Monni makes, against an aggressively funky backdrop, a defiant statement of independence: "I don't need your praise/I just do what I want/I don't need your faith/'Cause I have no doubts/You can feel me, squeeze me, tease me/But, baby, don't need me." And in "Til Death Do Us Part," a moody, bluesy shuffle highlighted by Ken's steady organ-programmed keyboards, she reflects coolly on her wedding vows: "Don't you remember/When we vowed/Til death do us part?/It means nothing/To me now."

Although Ken kept his feelings about his wife's illness locked up, he was much more forthcoming about the music. He had to "put a lot of the lyrics and everything aside and just work on them for the musical aspect. There's a lot of different emotion there, which is great listening to. There's some real downs, some real anger, and it's real. Most of the fluff people write isn't real."

"It was tough on everybody," Monni remembered. "A lot of the songs are about our breakup. He says for him to play that was just extremely hard. I think they came out so well because of the emotion behind them. He told me he probably would never listen to the CD again."

Still, there was no doubt that Ken was the right man for the job. "To find someone else would have really made the project that much longer," Monni explained. "I knew I wouldn't have been satisfied with anyone else. When the piano player automatically knows where you're going to go with the song... A lot of times we'd practice a song once before we performed."

For a few weeks after Colors of Life was finished, a tour still seemed feasible. Tower and Virgin records picked up the album. (Six dollars from every CD sold benefits the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.) Monni was putting together a trip to New York and trying to arrange an interview with talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell about her experiences as a breast cancer survivor. Even the band was cautiously optimistic about the future. "I think down the road things might have changed a bit," Roach said. "My objective was to get it more in a competitive state. I would have given it a little time to grow and see how we came together. We were gonnna drive this to the highest level we could and compete with the major labels."  

At the end of the summer, after the recording sessions were completed, Janzen tried to go back to work as a computer consultant. She had been off for about a year, and her bosses wanted her to fly to L.A. for an orientation that would gradually reacclimatize her to the workplace. Since she was under doctor's orders not to fly, she drove out to California with her brothers. But as soon as she got there, she became ill. On the way back to Denver, the family stopped off in Las Vegas to visit relatives; Janzen's health worsened, and she insisted she needed to get back to Colorado immediately. She was incoherent for most of the 750-mile trip. Back home, she went in for a CAT scan and learned that the cancer had spread everywhere -- to her brain stem, her heart, her liver, her kidneys.

She called her sister Winnie and told her what had happened. Winnie didn't believe her. "Don't be kiddin', Monica," she said.

"It spread to my brain," Janzen told her again. And right then Winnie, a surgical tech herself, knew her sister would likely die. "The doctors weren't giving us any hope," she recalled. "A lot of the surgeons I work with, all they could do was say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Janzen immediately underwent radiation treatment to try to eradicate the cancer from her brain, so she could at least think. One side effect of radiation treatment, though, is that it wipes out a lot of short-term memory as well. She began writing everything down, just to link one day to the next. She passed on a second round of chemo. "After a certain point, you just get tired," she explained.

In late September, Janzen's doctors gave her between two weeks and three months to live. Ten radiation treatments had left her unstable. By the end of October, her movements were slow andtrembling. She tried not to sleep much. She drank teas, took medications from an herbologist she visited in Kansas and consumed fifty to sixty pills a day: drugs like Decadron, to relieve the splitting, constant pain in her head, and Zenofil, another painkiller that is two times stronger than morphine.

She managed one last return to the stage, singing "Today I Finally Cried" at a breast cancer benefit concert at the Gothic Theatre in late October. Before a crowd of a few hundred, she sang from a sofa that had been brought on stage for her. "It came out really well. I was really surprised," she said. But she was also exhausted afterward.

Throughout this fall, some days were better than others. But by late November, Janzen was in such pain that she couldn't sleep. More potent meds knocked her out. On the day her photo was taken for this story, it took her ninety minutes to rouse herself and get ready. Early last week, she was in so much pain that she wasn't talking to anyone.

Janzen's band has dissolved, and the players have moved on to other work. Donaldson, who's now sitting in with a few local bands as a substitute guitarist, had been playing for only about five years when he initially hooked up with Ken and Monni, so the opportunity to play -- however fleetingly -- with a promising group was an experience he won't soon forget. "I felt more disappointed for the other guys and for her," he said. "I was just happy to be on the project. It's the dream all musicians are looking for. And they get the opportunity to be a part of a project that had the potential to really do something."

But just by making that album, Monica "Monni" Janzen really did something. She showed that dreams can come true -- even if they take a very different form than you originally envisioned.

"I want to believe there's a chance I'll have a couple more years," she said late last month. "At the same time, I know how widespread the cancer is. You kind of accept the finality of things."

Monni's song finally ended last Wednesday. On November 29, she passed away at her sister's home -- leaving behind many mourning loved ones, and a CD we can all remember her by.

A memorial service for Monica Janzen will be held Thursday, December 7, at 11 a.m. at Kingdom Hall, 720 Crestline Drive, Colorado Springs. A trust fund has been created for her children; contact Bill Thomas at 303-494-6927 for details.

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