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Kansas City Singer Vanessa Thomas On Finding Her Voice And Vocation

Paul Andrews
Vanessa Thomas always knew that she and the piano would be friends. She was right.

Kansas-based singer Vanessa Thomas, who tours the country sharing a bill with Grammy Award-winning tumpeter Doc Severinson, doesn't know why she's wearing a cast in her baby pictures.

"It was a foot cast that went all the way up above my knee," she says.

The rest is lost in what she calls a no-man's land of forgotten memories. A story she knows is hers, but almost can't believe is true, except that paper files full of documentation insist that it is.

Vanessa was placed in foster care when she was just 6 or 8 months old. For a while, her biological parents maintained visitation rights, but every time Vanessa would come back from those visits, she was injured, sometimes to the point of hospitalization, and on a couple of occasions, near the brink of death. After a particularly grisly episode, the state of Kansas stepped in and the visits stopped, but the legal battle continued for years before her parents were finally able to adopt her at age four.

That's when her memories begin.

"I remember that year I was very nervous all the time because I knew I wanted to stay where I was with my family.  You know? My mom and dad wanted to adopt me. I called them Mom and Dad, and I didn't know any other Mom and Dad, and I had this family of four brothers and a sister. I was home. But I knew there was a possibility that I wouldn't get to stay."

She was living an idyllic existence in the town of Clay Center,  Kansas, a farming community of 5,000 where she had an open sky and a yard to play in, where everyone in town said hi to her on the street and addressed her by name. But that year, when she was four, if someone said hello to her out in public, she would hide behind her mom, fearing that the well-intentioned stranger had been sent to take her away.

How do you process a trauma you don't remember? In Vanessa's case, through music.

"I just made a way to adapt and survive, and whatever that was in my toddler brain, it kept me going for a long time," she says. "And so I didn't have horrible emotions on a daily basis. I had a very happy childhood. ... But that being said, there would be times when a torrent of emotion would come out and I just didn't know what that was. .... So I think that music came to me as the only way that I could express myself."

When asked to describe how music felt to her then, when she was so young, all she can say is: "Goosebumps."

She started begging for piano lessons when she was five. 

"I say begging because I was very insistent. And then I will say I started nagging. And then I think I started having full-on tantrums about it. For some reason, it was everything to me."

Credit paulandrewsphotography.com

When she was in high school, the town of Clay Center got together to raise the money needed to send her to Interlochen Arts Camp, a prestigious performing arts center, where she ended up playing the lead role in the end-of-summer operetta. That earned her lots of  attention from recruiters from the country's top conservatories. But, as she puts it, she still had that "small town mentality." She was 17 and overwhelmed. Plus, the price tag seemed impossible. So she went on to study music for a year at Kansas State University before ditching the formal education for an informal one, in New York City, where she attended the Metropolitan Opera "no less than four times a week."

It was on a trip back to her hometown of Clay Center, for a 99th birthday celebration, that she met Doc Severinson, the tumpeter famous for his outfits with flashy ties on The Late Show with Johnny Carson. Before Vanessa's time, he'd made a number of visits to Clay Center, a stopping off point for a lot of live acts between bigger cities, and he'd developed close ties with a local family. The two of them were both scheduled to perform.

She saw someone pacing at the back of the auditorium during her soundcheck and assumed it was an impatient custodian needing to clean up. It was Doc. He asked who she was and in true Clay Center form, she said simply, "I'm Vanessa." 

Long story short, he ended up hiring her to tour with him, doing performances at both concert halls, like the Kauffman Center and the Hollywood Bowl, and clinics with little small-town college jazz bands. 

Credit paulandrewsphotography.com

She says she's living her dream, which means that a lot of the things she grew up wanting, she now has. And that's not just a career in music. In fact, that comes second.

"Being adopted, I always had a dream of having my own children. I have four wonderful kids and we have a great time. It's a crazy busy hectic life, but I really have enjoyed being a mom. And the second part of my dream is being able to support myself with a career in music."

Portrait sessions are in-depth conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews.

Gina Kaufmann is the host of Central Standard. You can reach her on Twitter.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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