Lady Zen’s Moment
Portland’s jazz-funk poet finds her groove
By Chris Busby
The most powerful voice in Portland belongs to a 40-year-old Brazilian Buddhist from the Bible Belt who makes her living slinging pizza. Her name is Alzenira Santos Amaral Quezada. You may know her as Lady Zen.
Lady Zen is a jazz-funk poet — think Jill Scott meets Gil Scott-Heron. Her remarkable range was in evidence during a gig at The Big Easy last month. It was billed as a CD release show, though the EP she had on hand was quite different from the material she was performing that evening.
Poverty to Poetry consists of five songs she recorded with a funk band, the Lazy Susans, last summer. Lady Zen raps and sings her verse over slinky grooves on those tracks — four originals and a laid-back arrangement of “My Girl.”
The post-modern mix of funk, jazz, hip hop and poetry on that album is eras away from the jazz standards she nailed that night, backed by a subdued three-piece combo of guitar, bass and drums. On songs like “Black Coffee,” “Lush Life,” “Comes Love,” “Round Midnight” and “Lover Man,” she channeled Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald so flawlessly that it raised goose bumps. Between standards she picked up a different mic and delivered her own spoken-word pieces, “hip hop sermons,” sans accompaniment.
The turnout was respectable, but just a shadow of the crowds that have flocked to hear her sing soul classics by Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye at cover-song gigs. She’ll undoubtedly pack The Big Easy this Valentine’s Day when she performs Erykah Badu’s groundbreaking neo-soul album, Baduizm, in its entirety, followed by a set of originals.
Lady Zen’s music mirrors her life: both have been all over the map. On the heels of a heartbreaking year, Lady Zen is poised to make her strongest music yet in 2012. She’s learning how to meld her influences into a sound that’s uniquely her own.
You’ve never heard anyone like Lady Zen around here. And you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
From the Amazon to Amazing Grace
Lady Zen’s first memory is waking up in a crib in a Brazilian orphanage. She was adopted when she was a toddler by Christian missionaries from the Midwest who ran a school in Maringá, a city in southern Brazil. They renamed her Sheri Joy Glick. The family moved to São Paulo, then returned to the States and settled in Fayetteville, Arkansas when she was 7.
From the time she could speak it was obvious that young Sheri Glick was a prodigy. Her online bio notes that she was “clearly hearing and singing harmony at age three.” Her parents, who belong to the Church of the Nazarene, steered her toward opera and Gospel music. “When I was little I used to sing at tent revivals and stuff like that, and get everybody all excited about Jesus,” she said with a laugh during an interview at Mama’s CrowBar, a neighborhood place a few blocks from her apartment on Munjoy Hill.
She sang at church concerts and county fairs all over the South, and won over 60 vocal competitions, according to her bio. Her father was in the oil business, so the family moved often, living in Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.
At age 12, Glick was discovered by a professional opera singer and began formal training in Austin. She developed a three-and-a-half octave range and won a Fulbright Scholarship for opera performance, which she pursued at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. A highlight of this period was the time the young mezzo-soprano sang with William Warfield in a production of Porgy and Bess.
Growing up in the sheltered world of the church and the conservatory, the nascent Lady Zen was largely ignorant of her own heritage. She wouldn’t discover her background until she was 18, when a younger blood-sister in Brazil, also orphaned, wrote her a letter asking if she too could be adopted and brought to America. (The Glicks agreed to do so.)
“She knows a lot about our family, and that’s where I found out that my mother was a South American Amazonian Indian and my father was from Bahia,” Lady Zen said. “He was half black, half Brazilian. The lineage of the music in Bahia in Brazil is that if you are a Bahian, that means that you have the music of Brazil in your blood, so all of us are kind of talented in different ways. My sister is a really great dancer and artist, and I got the voice.”
This revelation was soon followed by another equally profound. “I didn’t really listen to a lot of popular music until I got older,” she said. “My first exposure to anything was when I was at a party in college and they were playing Billie Holiday … I really liked the fact that Billie Holiday’s voice was so full of pain and happiness and beauty that I didn’t find in opera. That’s why I chose to pursue that, because it felt more like home to me.”
Though jazz would change her life, Sheri Glick’s next move was to change her name to Sheri Quezada and become the lead singer of queer folk-rock band called Liquid Blue. The group recorded five albums and toured the South, but in the late 1990s she left all that behind and moved to Olympia, Washington to attend Evergreen State College, where she studied music business management and audio recording. She teamed up with Joe Baque, a jazz pianist who’d played with many of the greats — Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz — over the course of a seven-decade career, and they gigged throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Lady Zen also got involved in the underground hip hop scene in Olympia. She was learning how to combine her poetry with beats, and how to write hooks for dance tracks. She volunteered with the Female Hip Hop Alliance, a organization that taught girls how to DJ and emcee. She’s worked with fellow orphans, runaways and other at-risk youth ever since, using her own experience to show them how they too can be empowered through music.
From Olympia she moved to Athens, Ohio, and became part of Casa Nueva, a worker-owned restaurant and cantina that hosted live music. Lady Zen honed her hip hop chops during her four years there, forming an all-female DJ group called the Ki-en Crew and making regular appearances at a venue called the Hip Hop Shop.
It was love that eventually brought her here.
Good morning, heartache
Lady Zen moved to Portland four years ago. She was in a relationship with a doctor doing an internship at Maine Med, and they only intended to stay for a year, but fate had other plans.
When the No on 1 campaign was launched to defend same-sex marriage in 2009, Lady Zen became one of its first field organizers. She also worked as a chef for a catering company. Her co-workers and fellow activists had no idea this women had a voice inside her that could shake the rafters and break your heart. She had essentially abandoned music.
After a year, the No on 1 Campaign was winding down and heading toward defeat. She was unhappy at her catering job, but didn’t want to leave Portland. “‘There’s something here for me,’” she recalled saying to herself one day while looking out her window at Casco Bay. “‘I don’t think I can leave here.’”
She said she asked the cosmos for an answer, and it arrived the next day when she showed up for work and the catering company unexpectedly laid her off for the winter. “‘OK, universe, what is it that I’m supposed to focus on?’” she recalled asking. “The universe came back and said, ‘If you would just write, we would really be happy and we’ll support you.’” So that’s what she did.
Lady Zen started bringing her new poems to the open-mics put on by Port Veritas, performing pieces that mixed spoken-word with jazz vocals. Then she teamed up with local jazz trumpeter Mark Tipton and bassist Chris Sprague to record her work with their music. “I started really listening to Leonard Cohen and understanding that what I was doing was an evolution of jazz-funk poetry,” she said. “That’s how it started.” (Her Big Easy gig included a gorgeous interpretation of Cohen’s “Suzanne.”)
The Lazy Susans formed in 2010 and had some success during the year they were together. The four-piece backing band (guitar, bass, drums and sax), often augmented by a couple female backing singers, played a gay pride festival in Central Park and opened for members of Parliament/Funkadelic in Boston. “They’re an incredible band and I really cherish that experience, but it still wasn’t reaching its full potential,” Lady Zen said of the Susans. “Everything is just getting broader and better.”
Last August, Lady Zen performed a concert of Billie Holiday’s music, “Lady Zen Sings Lady Day,” at Mayo Street Arts. That show and her more recent jazz gig at The Big Easy have been revelatory. The buzz is really beginning to build.
“It’s always amazing that people know my name,” she said. “I was in a cab the other day and the cab driver turned around and he’s like, ‘Are you Lady Zen?’ I said ‘Yeah.” He was like, ‘Holy shit, listen to this,’ and he turned up the stereo and he’s playing my CD. He said, ‘I just got this and I can’t stop listening to it.’”
The new material Lady Zen’s been recording has a “Gil Scott-Heron sort of feel, that ’70s sort of feel,” she said. “It can still move, but also has its moments where it’s absolutely jazz, and then there are times it’s absolutely funk, and then there’s times when it’s mixed. As we continue to produce, we’ll find out where it goes. It’s like watching dawn. You sit in the dark for awhile and you see all these shapes, and the sun starts coming up and things start making more sense.”
Concurrent with those recordings, Lady Zen is preparing to publish two collections of her poetry. She’s also been collaborating with dance-music producers from L.A., Montreal and elsewhere. They send her beats, she sends back vocal hooks, and the collaborations continue until the track is done and hits the underground club scene.
This period of intense creativity has coincided with a period of intense heartache. Last year, Lady Zen experienced the end of her most serious romantic relationship and found out that her father, John Glick, is dying.
“The relationship was something I was willing to do,” she said. “I was willing to fall in love, and when you’re willing to fall in love you kind of have to be willing to get your heart broken. We always forget about that. It was the first time I’ve ever fallen completely in love with someone.”
The breakup has ultimately made her a more expressive singer. “It opened up a conduit in me to be able to feel a larger range of emotions, and I feel like I’m bringing that now on stage with me,” she said. “I can open up a little more, I can let you see in a little more, because I’ve already felt it, so it can’t be any worse.”
Her relationship with her dying father is still unresolved. He wants to see his daughter again before he dies, but she hasn’t been able to summon the courage to return.
“Part of the reason I haven’t returned to Arkansas is just the amount of racism that existed when I was young, and growing up there was really hurtful,” she said. “And then having parents who were so strict in their Christianity and their beliefs … Being a Buddhist, my relationship with God is very different than theirs, and there’s a lot of disconnect.
“I wasn’t welcome in my parents’ home for 10 years,” she continued. “We didn’t even speak for 10 years. So repairing those relationships, and being told that your father is dying and he really wants you to come home, is difficult when you’ve already said your acceptance of his life, and you wish him well and extend all of this forgiveness.”
References to her experience growing up as a mixed-race lesbian in an intolerant world are made obliquely in Lady Zen’s poetry, and are always paired with a declaration of affirmation. “The more disconnection I experience from my humiliation, the more I live my life without limitation and the more I become practiced in the art of liberation,” she wrote in the poem “This is Not a Test,” which she performed last month at The Big Easy.
She read on. “I too once was terrified of my propensities toward ascendancies. It is not my inadequacies that devastate me. It’s a vain laziness to suggest that anything or anyone,” her voice grew intense, “can be a hindrance to my opulence. For who am I not to rise like the cream of the crop? Dedicated to achieving. Famous in my community. A brilliant talent worthy of respect. A woman who chooses to stay with her weakness until it becomes my excellence.”
Lady Zen still makes pizza at Otto, but she’s applying a new level of professionalism to her music career these days. “This year I’m working with booking agents and copyright people and lawyers and stuff like that that I’ve never worked with before. I had a PR person. I’d never done PR. It’s all very new, and it’s kind of scary, because it moves at a snail’s pace, but it’s what I want.”
“I think in the next few months you’re gonna see a lot more definition, a lot more performances from me,” she said. “There’s gonna be more music and more stuff coming from me this year than you’ve ever seen.”
Lady Zen’s working on a new show titled, “Poems That Are Meant to Be Sung and Songs That Are Meant to Be Read.” As her work evolves, she said the jazz standards at her live shows will gradually be replaced by “my own standards and my own poetry.”
“When you come to one of my shows, it gives you something to sit and digest … to move you out of your reality of everyday,” she said. “I feel like when people walk in and hear me sing, they’re transported and they’re mesmerized for a second. They really have to stop. I think that’s why I have the kind of respect that I have in this town, because people come and listen, and I think they take things home with them.”