Last March, the superb Chicago jazz singer Grazyna Auguscik was rehearsing for one of the biggest concerts of her career, in her native Poland, when she received the worst news of her life.
Her partner of more than 20 years, Marek Bajson, had been killed as he stood alongside his car on the shoulder of Mannheim Road, near O'Hare International Airport. A woman who admitted she had been drinking tried to pass a vehicle, swerved, struck Bajson's car and then him, according to a Tribune report. Bajson, who had been waiting for a friend to bring gasoline for Bajson's car, died at the scene.
When Augusick learned what happened, she was on her way to her Warsaw hotel room after rehearsal for a concert that would be broadcast across Poland.
It was "the most tragic day of my life," recalls Auguscik, who this weekend embarks on a series of performances that will include a tribute to Bajson.
"I didn't know what I am going to do. The first thought was to jump on the plane the next morning and go back to Chicago. But thanks to my friends, Chicago friends … they told me that I should play the concert because Marek was waiting for this concert. …
"I didn't hear what they said, I didn't sleep much. The next morning came, some makeup artists put on makeup, which I destroyed immediately.
"I went for the final rehearsal, the sound check, didn't sing much, couldn't sing. I was too emotional," adds Auguscik, who was participating in a tribute to the great Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.
"The hour before the concert, something happened to me, like some kind of energy locked my emotions. Like you are inside a bubble."
Auguscik went on stage and sang what she calls "the most difficult" concert of her life and afterward was "trying to hide all the emotions" she felt.
But, of course, when she returned to Chicago she had to face her loss.
"It's very tough to come back to an empty place," says Auguscik. "The thing I missed most is the conversation. You lose the person that you shared your thoughts (with). When I was on the road, I really loved to call him and talk about things. It's very difficult without that. You can talk with your friends, but it's not the same.
"The first year people said is (most) difficult. I was sick the first time without Marek. ... You have to welcome the first time winter, first summer, first spring and fall. So it's going to be always the first time, and then you're used to it.
"That's how it is. I know everybody has to face it someday, to lose the closest (person).
"But for me it's only one problem: It's too soon and suddenly."
For Auguscik, the loss was all the greater because Bajson was not only her partner but also a kind of kindred spirit in her life's work. He designed graphics for her web site, Facebook page, albums and posters. He regularly pursued people who sold copies of her music without permission and he guarded her other interests.
As she said during his funeral, Bajson "gave me the energy that I needed to sustain my personal needs and my professional passions. So often, he lived his life through mine, always by my side, in flesh or in spirit."
So Auguscik now battles to rebuild her life.
She hastens to note, however, that she has at least one indestructible ally in her quest to recover: music.
This weekend she will play two major shows, and she's busily planning a memorial concert for Bajson on March 22 at the Jesuit Millennium Center on West Irving Park Road.
"Music helps me a lot – music is my therapy," says Auguscik, who has invited many Chicago musicians who have worked with her through the years to play the memorial. She also hopes to display at the event some of Bajson's graphics work, which she's continually discovering on his computer late at night.
"I try to prepare this night to be nice ... and not very sad," says Auguscik.
One Chicago musician who has worked with her longer than most, singer-guitarist Paulinho Garcia, feels hopeful about Augusick's future.
"She's been OK, she is trying to cope with the loss," says Garcia, who knows something about what Auguscik is going through. He lost his wife in 1996, when she was 42.
Bajson, says Garcia, "was a very, very nice man, a very good friend of mine. He was a great help for the two of us. He would do everything for us. ... He was not just a fan of hers but amazing help.
"But she's been OK. She's trying hard. She's a very strong woman. ... She's going to be around for many, many years."
Certainly she has a great deal to say in music. On Saturday afternoon, she will celebrate music of Chopin at PianoForte Studios accompanied by pianist Ben Lewis. Augusick has become one of the world's leading jazz interpreters of Chopin's work, as anyone who attended her massive, bicentennial tribute to his birth at Millennium Park in 2010 can attest. Here were Chopin preludes, nocturnes, mazurkas and other works transformed through jazz improvisation by Augusick and several leading Polish and Chicago instrumentalists.
Saturday's recital with Lewis clearly will be far more intimate in scale, but the ethereal tone and uncommon liquidity of Auguscik's vocals always have been the central appeal of her work.
As guitarist Garcia observes, "She has a very beautiful voice (and) her intonation is so good that it is a challenge for me. When you play the guitar, you play a lot of complex chords, and with speed it's hard to control – sometimes you go a little out of tune. Once you have a very good singer like Grazyna, who has very nice intonation, it's a challenge to keep it in tune. She's like an instrument."
After the Chopin concert, Auguscik will catch her breath for a few hours, then head to Katerina's, where on Saturday evening she will reprise a project examining the music of British songwriter Nick Drake, marking the 40th anniversary of his death.
Subsequent shows at the Green Mill and further European tours suggest Auguscik is putting her life and music back together, despite all that has happened.
Her friends and family have gotten her this far, she says.
"We can talk about preparation, but there is no such thing like that – when the thing comes, we know how we are going to react," says Auguscik. "And it's coming to me right now, with every little detail, every little place in my mind, I see Marek everywhere."
Even so, she continues to sing.
"I will stay with this till the end of my life," says Augusick, who perhaps heals by healing others.
Grazyna Auguscik performs jazz interpretations of music of Chopin with pianist Ben Lewis at 3 p.m. Saturday at PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Ave.; $20; pianofortefoundation.org or 312-291-0291. She explores music of Nick Drake at 10 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Rd.; $15; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com. And "We Will Play for Marek," a memorial concert for Marek Bajson, will feature Auguscik and colleagues 8 p.m. March 22 at the Jesuit Millenium Center, 5835 W. Irving Park Rd.; grazynaauguscik.com.
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