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Francesca Nemko: Excavating Her Buried Treasure

At 82, Francesca Nemko is the very definition of self-actualized. Born and raised in London, England, she was one of two daughters raised by a glass and china shop owner and a stay-at-home mother. Introduced to the creative world of American jazz music by her older sister (via the great Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and their cohorts), Francesca took to it with such unquestioned passion that she believes her affinity for this music form has to be “innate.” Indeed, by the time she was in her mid-thirties, she was writing (with no college degree, it should be stated) for the top jazz publications in the world: The LA Times, Jazz Now, Jazz Times, and the still-famous Downbeat magazine.

And she loved it!

The writing was just one of many “gigs” she worked to keep a roof over her head. She was also an accomplished seamstress, crochet artist, and secretary, having foregone college for a stint in a London business school. She quit her last full-time job in 1967 at the age of 30 and has been “free-lancing” ever since, working as a writer, secretary, alterations expert, singer and teacher—staying true to her unique talents and passions and sharing her philosophy with others as much as possible.

“Spontaneity is my watchword,” she says. “And creativity and diversity are my strengths; I highly recommend them!”

As a girl, she’d always loved singing and dancing but was discouraged early on due to an undiagnosed deviated septum that gave her singing voice a “foghorn” pitch. But this did not derail her devotion to jazz and at 20 years old, she left London on the first of many adventures, this one to South Africa. The year was 1959; her parents were divorced and her sister was married. So Francesca took her beloved record player to Johannesburg where she found a band she liked at a place called The Barbecue Ranch. She asked if she could sit in as a singer. “I was pretty brazen in those days,” she admits.

And thus began a two-year stint as a professional jazz singer. She would eventually move to New York “where all the good jazz is!” and then on to Hollywood, a road trip she embarked on with another woman looking for an escape from the cold winters. In California, Francesca met other musicians who began a new art form called “spoken word jazz,” a combination of music and poetry that was mutually inspiring. It was here that she met a well-known jazz critic named Leonard Feather and began writing in earnest.

Soon, she was working as a personal assistant for artist/writer Lucia Cappacchione. Francesca assisted with the publication of a dozen books by Cappacchione, as well as several of her self-help workshops. When Lucia decided to move away from the madness that is Southern California, Francesca was invited to go along. They moved into a home in Cambria where Francesca continued to be Lucia’s “girl Friday” while getting to know many of our local musicians.

After 2 years in Cambria, Francesca moved to San Luis Obispo and continued to write, for both national publications and for local ones. She had a regular column at The Tribune and became a familiar voice in the poetry and jazz world.

Eventually, she found herself turning 75, at which point she re-discovered her singing voice. “I’m a late bloomer,” she smiles. So she took a 12 weeks-long vocal workshop—twice. And by the time she’d completed the second, the voice that had lain dormant for so many years was polished and ready for the public. Leona Evans, who has headed the ministry at Unity Church for decades, encouraged her singing, giving her several opportunities to perform in church productions, events, and services. She also started a writing workshop called “Excavating Your Buried Treasure” that meets once a week at Unity to explore hidden talents and experience the joy of self-discovery and expression.

For seven years, Francesca has been sharing music, song, and stories with others at coffee shops, music venues, and local senior communities such as Las Brisas and The Villages of SLO, among others. Regular accompanists are Brett Mitchell on piano and Matthew Evan on bass. She is also the author of three books: Childless Mother, Of Parrots & Paradigms, and her latest, Transitions: My First 75 Years. She is currently working with partner Mike Swan, an accomplished guitarist and singer in his own right. Together, they inspire each other and offer a unique take on the magic of improvisational jazz and the English language. Francesca, aka Frankie, Nemko likes to joke that she is “past my best-used-by date,” citing frustration with today’s ever-changing and much-too-fast technology. Her message, however, is both timeless and priceless. She has done what all the self-help books advise but so few people have the courage to do. She recognized her love for jazz, she cultivated her innate talents, and she trusted her instincts to live a full, diverse, and creative life.

For copies of her books, or to book her for a workshop or entertainment, call or email her at 805-786-4325 or francesajazzpoet@sbcglobal.net.



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