The Nine Lives of Lady Zen
Concert Friday, Saturday
By Fredric Dannen
The 17-year-old girl was studying to become an opera singer, and she had learned a trick to gauge whether her demanding voice teacher was displeased with her. The professor, Elaine Cencel, was a formidable mezzo-soprano who sang Wagnerian roles at some of the world’s leading opera houses. The young woman, Sheri Joy Glick, was enrolled at the University of Arkansas on a Fulbright Scholarship in opera performance, and Cencel had big plans for her student, perhaps even a career at the Metropolitan. Cencel wore half glasses, and if she removed them slowly while Sheri was singing for her, and put the stem in the corner of her mouth, it was usually a good sign. If, however, Cencel whipped off her glasses during the lesson, the young woman knew she was in trouble. On this particular day in 1988, Cencel not only tore off her glasses, but began twirling them rapidly, a gesture of silent rage. It wasn’t because of Sheri’s singing, but over something the young woman had just told her teacher.
“I’m quitting opera to sing jazz.”
Cencel was outraged. “Jazz? That isn’t even music!” she said.
Sheri Joy Glick was not to be deterred. She had discovered the recordings of Billie Holiday, and heard her own future. She told herself, “I want to have that kind of heart when I sing.” Perhaps she even knew at that moment that she one day would drop the name her Christian missionary adoptive parents had given her and restore her Brazilian birth name: Alzenira Quezada. Indeed, as a jazz and blues singer and lyric-fusion poet, she would turn the second syllable of her first name into her moniker: Lady Zen.
The young woman was drawn to jazz because of the freedom that style of music provided. Opera was beautiful, but it was too regimented, as her life with her adoptive parents had been. In the recordings of Billie Holiday and other jazz singers, she heard “vulnerability and pain,” feelings with which she could well identify, as a gay woman of a color living in the racist, homophobic Deep South. Some months earlier, her Bible-thumping parents, unable to cope with their daughter’s avowed homosexuality, had thrown her out. “I didn’t even have words for how I was feeling then,” she recalls.
Today, Lady Zen still has no satisfactory answer to the mystery of how she ended up the adopted child of American missionaries. All she knows for sure is that before she was a year old, she had been placed in an orphanage in Brazil, even though her biological parents were still living. An evangelical couple from the American Midwest, John and Carrie Glick, ran a school in Maringá, in southern Brazil. They adopted 11-month-old Alzenira Santos Amaral Quezada, took her to the United States, and settled in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Sheri Joy Glick, as the girl was renamed, became aware of her singing talent as a child. Her musical education began at the Church of the Nazarene, where her voice quickly elevated her to star status. Sheri’s parents told her her vocal abilities were a gift from God. They also told her, in words and substance, to think of herself as a white person and act accordingly. “They said, ‘If you act well enough, no one will see your race,’” Lady Zen recalls. “And I remember thinking, ‘How can you just erase who I am?’ That was the cruelty of my childhood.”
Worse yet, as a child, Lady Zen was kept ignorant of most of the details of her ethnic heritage; all she really knew was that she looked and felt different. Some years later, a younger blood-sister filled in missing pieces: her biological mother was a South American Amazonian Indian, and her father, half black and half Brazilian, was from Bahia, the country’s northeastern seacoast. Bahia, the birthplace of samba, is one of the most musical locales on earth. Young Sheri’s vocal talent may indeed have been a gift from God, but it was also very likely in her DNA.
Wherever it came from, it was not a gift she was prepared to squander. She sang at church concerts, county fairs, and tent revivals all through the South, and by the age of 12 had won over sixty vocal competitions. She was a fierce competitor, approaching each competition as a cutting contest.
“I would chop everybody up,” Lady Zen recalls today. “And while I believe it’s okay to have good self-esteem, I discovered there was a difference between vanity and arrogance. At one competition, I was sitting on a stairwell, and there was a young girl crying in the hall. She couldn’t see me, but I could hear her. She had to sing after me, and she was so nervous and scared. At that moment, I realized I had taken the competitiveness too far. This was not the person I wanted to be.”
Right around that time, an opera singer named Gary Durham happened to hear her perform. “He told my mom, ‘She’s a shockingly good vocalist at age 12, but she’s straining her voice,’” Lady Zen remembers. Durham became her first formal vocal instructor. Two years later, John Glick temporarily moved his family to Texas, where Sheri continued her opera studies with a different teacher. On the family’s return to Fayetteville, she auditioned at the University of Arkansas. Elaine Cencel heard her, and helped her secure a Fulbright Scholarship in opera performance.
It turned out the scholarship, which paid for books and tuition, was a practical necessity, because soon after her enrollment at the university, Sheri made her parents aware of her homosexuality. “My parents tried to pray the gay demon out of me,” Lady Zen recalls, and when that didn’t work, she was ejected from the household. The Glicks lived well – John Glick was an architect for a construction company, and designed houses for wealthy clients – and suddenly Sheri was cleaning bathrooms at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville to pay for a small apartment. “For the first time in my life,” she says, “I felt isolated, alone, and poor.” Her fateful decision to drop out of college and abandon her opera career soon followed.
Under the nom-de-rock Sheri Quezada, she soon became the lead singer for a queer folk-rock band called Liquid Blue. The group performed a lot of original material, including songs written or co-written by Quezada, who was by then avidly reading and writing poetry. Liquid Blue toured and recorded albums, but after a few years, Quezada was ready to hit the road. “My pianist was diagnosed with HIV and acting irresponsibly; my bass player was hanging out with a crack and meth-head crowd; and people in the band were screaming at each other,” she recalls. “We were all emotionally falling apart.”
The future Lady Zen moved to Olympia, Washington, in the late 1990s; she did social work, and enrolled at Evergreen State College to learn the business and production side of the music industry. While living in Olympia, she continued to develop her skills as a poet, and became a volunteer for the Female Hip Hop Alliance. After she obtained her degree from Evergreen, her partner, who was studying to be a physician, decided to move from the Pacific Northwest to Ohio, and Lady Zen went with her. “By this time,” she says, “my partner had me convinced that my degree was useless. She said, ‘If you were going to make it in the music industry, you’d have a record deal by now.’ I said, ‘You’re fucking right.’”
A skilled cook, Lady Zen thought she might have a shot at becoming a celebrity chef. In Athens, Ohio, she joined a worker-owned hippie restaurant called Casa Nueva. Heeding her partner’s advice, she had put aside her music – for the time being. “One day in the kitchen,” she recalls, “I was cleaning a pan, and I had reached a pinnacle of frustration. Suddenly, at the top of my lungs, I broke out into song. Everybody in the restaurant just stopped moving. And I told myself, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’ve got to get out of the kitchen and go back to voice.’”
Lazy Zen’s partner, now a doctor, got an internship in Portland, Maine, and the couple moved there in 2008. In Portland, the woman still legally named Sheri Joy Glick went into magistrate’s court and emerged as Alzenira Quezada – a birthday present to herself. Lady Zen worked for a catering company, but after getting laid off for the slow winter season, concluded that the universe was affirming what she already knew: She was created to be a vocalist, poet, and performer. Lady Zen teamed up with jazz instrumentals to pioneer a new art form – lyric-fusion poetry – an amalgam of poetry, spoken and sung, and jazz. Meantime, she worked in Portland as a gay-rights activist.
After breaking up with her partner, Lady Zen was invited to the San Miguel Poetry Week festival, and immediately felt at home. She has lived in San Miguel since early 2016.
One of the jazz singers who has had the greatest influence on Lady Zen is Bessie Smith, dubbed “the Empress of the Blues.” Smith was a bisexual African-American singer with a contralto voice of operatic proportions, and a Southerner who dealt with issues of race throughout her career. Bessie Smith’s musical legacy will be celebrated in a two-night-only production at the San Miguel Playhouse, at 7pm on Friday, March 30, and Saturday, March 31, in a show entitled Lady Zen Sings Bessie Smith. Lady Zen, whose own opera-trained, three-and-a-half-octave-ranged voice, is powerful enough to take on the Bessie Smith songbook, will be accompanied by Susan Varcoe on keyboard; Juan José on drums; Antonio Lozoya on bass; and Armando Servin on trumpet. Advance tickets for the two concerts are 300 pesos (350 at the door starting one hour before performance), and are on sale at Solutions, Recreo 11. Tickets can also be purchased online via sanmiguelplayhouse.com. Seats for this event are unassigned, so early arrival is recommended. The San Miguel Playhouse is located at Avenida Independencia #82.
Fredric Dannen is a journalist and author with a specialty in criminal justice. He has been a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
In 1990, Hit Men, his book about the American music industry and the influence of organized crime, spent a month on the New York Times bestseller list. The book is #2 on Billboard's list of 100 Greatest Music Books of All Time. One of his Vanity Fair articles prompted the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to rebuke the U.S. Justice Dept. for fraudulently withholding exculpatory evidence in the case of Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk, who was extradited, wrongly convicted, and sentenced to hang in Israel as the Nazi war-criminal “Ivan the Terrible.” He secured the only interview given by Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates on the heels of the infamous Rodney King beating, and the only interview ever given by crime boss Lorenzo Nichols, the crack kingpin of New York City.
While conducting research for a forthcoming book, Dannen uncovered lost evidence in the case of Calvin Washington, a Texan wrongly convicted of homicide. As the direct result of Dannen’s efforts, Calvin Washington won a full pardon for innocence, the first ever granted by Texas governor Rick Perry under the state’s DNA statute.
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