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Kansas City Jazz Singer Molly Hammer Dies After 13-Year Struggle With Breast Cancer

CD cover photo by Justin Wilson
Molly Hammer released "Out of this World" in 2017.

Vocalist Molly Hammer was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and learned in 2016 that cancer had spread to other parts of her body. She was known for her advocacy for cancer awareness and her support of Kansas City's music community.

Kansas City jazz and blues vocalist Molly Hammer died last week in hospice at age 48 after a long fight with cancer, according to an announcement from her mother on Facebook.

On November 25, Roberta Hammer wrote: “My daughter Molly Hammer passed yesterday at 10:30 pm after sharing her life for 13 years with breast cancer. Celebration of Life tentatively scheduled for June 2021.”

Hammer grew up in Excelsior Springs and worked as a stage actress for years before transitioning to the career she was best known for in Kansas City. High school choir teacher Tom Gifford tops her mother’s list of those who had an early and lasting influence.

Gifford says he only worked with Hammer during the 1989-1990 school year at Excelsior Springs High School, but she made an impression, and through mutual friends and Facebook, he followed her career.

“It was amazing to see a kid go on to make a career out of music. That’s really hard to do,” Gifford says. “When we moved to Kansas City, the jazz scene was just so vibrant, and to know that Molly was a big part of that was satisfying and exciting and everything else.”

He says that even in high school in her role as a narrator in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, she was a musical stylist mature beyond her years.

“If I recall right, we didn’t have to tell the narrator anything about how to do the job, we just said ‘make sure you stand here, make sure you go over there.’ She was just spot on from the very beginning of the rehearsals,” Gifford says.

After years of stage acting, including a five-year stint in Iowa playing Patsy Cline, Hammer devoted herself to jazz and blues in 2005.

In 2017, Hammer told KCUR: “I always admired Peggy Lee for being in complete control of her career. I wanted to do something like that.”

But she also acknowledged: “Jazz is serious. You can’t just walk in and start doing things.”

She went on to release four LPs, including one last month called I’m Feeling Mellow. In 2016 The Pitch awarded her Critics’ Choice for Best Jazz Singer. Hammer was known for her support for Kansas City's music community. Proceeds from her music sales, including an album released this year, will go to Midwest Music Foundation for musicians’ healthcare needs.

Music writer Bill Brownlee wrote of Hammer’s performance in a 2017 review of An Evening With George Gershwin: “Hammer’s stunning treatment of ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ indicates that she’s a worthy heir to torch singers like Rosemary Clooney.”

But in 2016 Hammer learned a bout with breast cancer she thought she’d ended eight years earlier wasn’t over.

Hammer wrote in a post on the website 7BillionOnes that she’d started noticing a tightness in her chest and pains in her pelvis and hips.

“Well, my worst fears had been confirmed,” Hammer wrote. “The cancer was back, and it was in my left lung and several spots in my bones. Stage Four.”

All the while, she kept singing, though at one point her vocal cords were paralyzed then, inexplicably, back in working order, she told the Shawnee Mission Post last year.

One of the things that stands out to Gifford is how public Hammer was about her illness.

“Her music career is incredible, and she touched so many lives and she was amazing,” he says. “But I also think that one of her important contributions was that when she got cancer, how open she was to the public.”

He says he thinks that by letting her fans and curious strangers into her private struggle, they were able to see cancer treatments and their effects up close. And, he says, that “probably was really important for families who have someone going through treatment, and obviously to cancer patients, too.”

The final public post she made of a performance was in September on the day she announced she was entering hospice care.

In her living room, she sings Daniel Nahmod’s “Everything New,” which includes the lyrics: “I’m through crying, I’m through waiting, I’m through hoping against all hope. I’m through looking for something gone that’ll never return.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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