If you pay attention to the local jazz scene, you've heard the smoky singing of Megan Birdsall. The petite blonde with Rapunzel hair and a classic, Ella Fitzgerald kind of voice gigs regularly at classy joints such as Jardine's and Café Trio. But Birdsall is no diva. She used to sport blue hair and a double-septum ring, and she still prefers to perform in jeans.
The Kansas City native has been carving out a career here since she dropped out of the Boston Conservatory at age 21. "I woke up in Boston, sat straight up in bed and went, 'Oh, shit! I gotta leave school,'" Birdsall says.
At 28, she's a casual jazz princess ready for national attention. Birdsall felt closer than ever to that goal earlier this year, when she began work on her latest album, Little Jazz Bird, and fielded more calls than usual from record labels.
Then, one day in the spring, Birdsall woke up to another realization. She couldn't move her moneymaker. At a time when her career seemed poised to take off, the singer literally couldn't open her mouth. "I couldn't open it or close it," she says. "I thought it was tetanus — lockjaw."
As weeks went by, she sought help from dentists, her doctor, an acupuncturist and a chiropractor before an MRI finally revealed the reason behind the sticky jaw joint and the pain shooting up the sides of her head.
She suffers from a rare condition affecting her temporomandibular joint that she describes as an "erosive, degenerative, arthritic bone condition." The problem's onset is usually during puberty, which means that Birdsall's jaw bones have probably been disintegrating for half of her life. So far, an inch and a half of bone is missing from the left side of Birdsall's face, and half an inch has disappeared from the right. Although invisible to the eye, the
asymmetry has caused her jaw to shift to the left and twist and recede so much that it covers up almost three-quarters of her windpipe.
Birdsall's band members joke that if she had full use of her pipes, her already powerful voice would be scary. But the reality isn't very funny. Without surgery, Birdsall could die.
As she tells me her story over sweet-potato fries at the Brick, her face scrunches up every few minutes into a wince of pain. The hurt is especially bad on this day because she ran out of anti-inflammatory pills the night before. When she doesn't take the drugs, Birdsall explains, her joints "swell really big, lock in." Without medication, she adds, "I can't do a whole lot with my stuff."
But later the same night, as Birdsall belts out the notes at Jardine's, she doesn't let the pain show. "I've become an expert on singing without moving my mouth," she says.
Unlike a lot of musicians, Birdsall actually has health insurance. But her policy won't cover much of the cost of what would be major surgery by an out-of-network doctor in Texas. To fix her, the surgeon will cut from Birdsall's eye socket to behind her ear and from there to the middle of her jaw. He'll replace her jaw with a titanium prosthesis and move her chin down, then cut the top part of her jaw and move it forward as much as 6 millimeters. "Then they'll sew my face back up," Birdsall says.
She's not sure how much her insurance company will pay, but she estimates that her coverage will top out around $30,000 — a drop in the bucket for a procedure that will cost a minimum of $140,000, plus travel expenses and months of rehabilitation. Still, the proud little jazz bird has been reluctant to ask for help.
"As a performer, I feel like it's my job to create an environment for people to experience some fucking great music," Birdsall says. "People in that audience don't owe me a damn thing."
But in her time of need, the woman who has been helping keep KC jazz alive deserves support. Do your part by attending one of three sets, starting at 8 p.m. at Jardine's Wednesday, October 17. The shows double as benefits and CD-release parties. Tickets cost $20. You can make additional donations that night through the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors or anytime at Megan meganbirdsall.com.
"I'm getting my face cut off," she says. But only if she can raise enough money.