Chicago jazz singer Judy Roberts battles rare cancer with the help of her husband
Chicago Tribune |
Apr 08, 2020 | 11:37 AM
About six months ago, Chicago singer-pianist Judy Roberts was feeling tired and weak and didn’t know why.
Roberts, who divides her year between residencies in her hometown and in the Phoenix area, noticed swelling in her feet.
So she and her husband, Chicago saxophonist Greg Fishman, went to the ER, then to other doctors and last December received a difficult diagnosis: amyloidosis, which Fishman describes as “similar to multiple myeloma – it’s a blood cancer.”
Roberts played her last gig at Hey Nonny, in Arlington Heights, on Nov. 28. Not long after, she and Fishman headed to their Arizona home, so she could receive treatment nearby at the Mayo Clinic.
“I wanted the absolutely best hospital help for her,” said Fishman, who has “been together” with Roberts since May 23, 1993 and married her on Feb. 2, 2002.
“It’s such a rare disease," he said. "She had already started three rounds of chemotherapy in Chicago, and we continued that here.
“She’s really weak. She plays the piano every day at home for as much as she can, before she gets tired. And she’s on Facebook talking to her friends.
“I’m basically Judy’s caretaker. It’s my whole mission in life to get her through this ordeal and try to get her back to playing gigs again. I’ve never been in this situation before.
“It’s turned into a full-time job, just dealing with nurses and doctors and prescriptions – it’s a massive undertaking. I don’t know how people do it. I certainly have more of an appreciation for people who are caretakers.”
For the past few months, Fishman has been driving Roberts to Mayo for treatment once a week, the only time she leaves home. But Fishman’s and Roberts’ lives aren’t devoted exclusively to fighting the illness. They’re also making time for their art.
“I’ll get my horn out, and we’ll play music,” said Fishman, as they’ve done together for decades in jazz clubs and concert halls around the world.
“My latest plan, when she’s not too tired for it: I want to do a set every day. Just pretend we’re playing a set every day, just to keep our chops up.
“I’m writing original songs, saying we’re going to play these when we get back to doing gigs. I’m trying to really stay positive and keep looking forward to everything.”
In an email, Roberts summed up her daily life this way:
“It’s good to stay connected with my Chicago friends through Facebook,” she said. “People have been so wonderful and supportive, and I’m so grateful. Greg and I are already working on new tunes to play when we come home to Chicago. (Jazz Showcase owner) Wayne Segal stays in touch with us, and we’re looking forward to returning to the Jazz Showcase. We’re also looking forward to our suburban gigs, like Suzette’s in Wheaton and Hey Nonny in Arlington Heights.”
Still, the coronavirus pandemic has not made things easier. Fishman no longer can go to Mayo to pick up his wife’s prescriptions, instead waiting for them to arrive in the mail.
“Judy is most susceptible … she’s immune-compromised right now,” said Fishman. “So I’m very careful. I go out minimally. I try to shop for a week or two and stock up. If I pick up a prescription, I do it through the drive-through window. I sanitize my hands before and after.
“Judy and I fortunately were nuts about hand sanitizers, so we have gallons of the stuff.”
Both musicians are cheered by the support they’ve received from a GoFundMe page. But like most jazz musicians, they’re concerned about the fate of small venues that, even in good times, didn’t turn much of a profit.
“We’re worried about all the clubs where we used to play, and whether they’ll be able to open again after all this,” said Fishman.
Still, he remains hopeful.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to Chicago at some time,” said Fishman, who spends several hours a day teaching lessons to students around the world via Skype.
“God willing, she can get into remission and get back to playing our gigs.
“The one thing we have is the music. We’re in the house here, listening to music, and we’re enjoying it. I’m playing some piano, and Judy is helping me with chord voicings and things like that.
“I can sit there and analyze it and figure it out. She just does it. … It’s just organic for her. I’ve got the greatest piano teacher in the world here.”
Whenever they go to Mayo, they see “a grand piano in the lobby,” added Fishman.
“I always ask her if she feels like playing it, and she says no.
“But I’m praying one day she’s going to play it.”
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's Emmy-winning arts critic; author of six books, including "The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel"; and writer-producer of three documentaries. He holds two honorary doctoral degrees and served on the Pulitzer music jury four times, including for the first jazz winner, "Blood on the Fields."