Music nurtured her, music sustained her, and when a soul-searching riverfront walk in Reno led Barbara Baxter to a place called “Dreamers,” music gave her new direction, leading to new love and a new home in Marion.
After nearly three decades working in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles as a manager for Xerox, Baxter had moved from Chicago to Las Vegas to be near the California homes of her children, Charmyne and Eric, and their families.
In 2005, she was jolted by the sudden death of Charmyne from what Baxter’s husband, Max Jackson, described as “rapid onset of severe pneumonia.” Music helped Baxter say goodbye to Charmyne in her hospital room.
“When my daughter was leaving this world to go into the next, my mother’s voice was in my head,” Baxter said. “She said, ‘Sing, Barbara,’ and that’s what we did. We literally sang her into glory.”
Baxter needed time and distance to cope with her loss, so she went to visit a friend in Reno, where she did “a lot of walking and soul-searching,” she said.
On one of those walks, she came upon Dreamers, a coffeehouse that provided a stage for local musicians and writers.
“I said, ‘I’m going to go in here and sing,’” Baxter recalled.
She chose a classic George Gershwin song, “Summertime,” which she sang without accompaniment. As she sang, she discovered her daughter in the lyrics.
“‘One of these mornings you’re going to rise up singing, spread your wings and take to the sky,’” Baxter said. “That was my baby girl, and I saw that as I sang that song.”
The lyric was healing, but also prophetic.
The response was enthusiastic, and return trips to Dreamers garnered an offer of a paid performance at a Reno club. More offers followed, and Baxter was off and running with a new career as a jazz singer.
However, offers didn’t magically appear because she was good. Baxter said she promoted herself by going to jazz venues and networking with musicians and listeners.
Marion via Marilyn
Marion native and physician Max Jackson had found his way to Reno by that time as well. He was working long hours as chief medical officer of Renown Regional Medical Center, about a mile from Dreamers.
When time allowed, jazz was his respite. It had been so for 15 years in Kansas City, where he played trombone with a band at Mutual Musicians Foundation, the storied anchor of the city’s rich jazz history. He played with a hobby band in Reno, but also found relief by going to local jazz clubs.
One night Jackson went to a club near the hospital, and Baxter was there, too, networking.
“When you’re a jazz vocalist, you go around and you work the room,” Baxter said. “’Hi, my name is, I’ll be singing dah-dah-dah next week, I’d sure like to see you.”
Baxter had help promoting her first big performance.
“My son was visiting that week,” she said. “Evidently he had spoken to Max at some point in time during the evening, and he said to me ‘That guy’s birthday is next week.’”
Jackson showed up at Baxter’s gig the following week, and she had something in store for the occasion.
“It was at Bistro 7, I’ll never forget,” she said. “I did this takeoff on Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President’ to Max.”
The couple differs a bit on their descriptions of the event.
“It’s a very sexy song,” Baxter said. “It was embarrassing for him, but it wasn’t embarrassing for me, because I was hoping to get some more gigs out of it.”
Jackson was more matter-of-fact.
“It was a reasonable thing to do that was somewhat creative,” he said. “I don’t know if she’d have done it for Jimmy Jones or not. I think there must have been some interest, at least at some level, even though it was pretty early. We dated after that.”
Dating eventually led to marriage this past January, and with Jackson’s retirement from the hospital, the couple moved to Marion shortly thereafter.
Baxter was the eldest of six children in a musical family in Chicago’s South Side, singing in a gospel choir in a small neighborhood church, the cornerstone of which bore her grandmother’s name.
She wasn’t a vocalist in school, but she had a teacher nonetheless, her older cousin, LurLean Harris.
Harris made a mark in the jazz world singing with Lionel Hampton’s band, and was the first African-American female singer to perform with a jazz band at the White House.
“She’s the one that poured music into me,” Baxter said. “She was one of those people that said, ‘Open your mouth, you can sing.’”
Baxter learned by listening to her cousin, absorbing everything without formal training.
“Barbara does not read music,” Jackson said. “She knows the songs. I think she’s had them in her head all these years and didn’t know it.”
The benefits of that early experience will be on display at the Historic Elgin Hotel on Sunday as the Barbara Baxter Jazz Trio performs American standards to benefit the Chris Hauser and Sons Performing Arts scholarship fund at Marion High School.
The other two members of the trio are John Goering, professor of piano jazz at Wichita State University, and bass player Riley Day, a recent WSU master’s degree graduate.
“They’re both highly reputable and busy musicians throughout Kansas,” Jackson said.
Jackson also will sit in with his trombone on a few numbers.
Baxter said she hoped the “Keep Jazz Alive” performance will be encouraging.
“At the end of the day you want to leave feeling you’ve been uplifted,” she said. “That’s my goal. I want people to be entertained and to hear my heart.”
The concert is 2 p.m. Sunday at the Elgin, and refreshments will be served. A donation of $5 is suggested.