Janet Pagliuca, a jazz singer wherever she lived, dies at 86
As a newlywed and then a young mother in the 1950s, Janet Pagliuca would ride from Framingham into Brookline and Boston for singing lessons and to perform, chauffeured to and fro by her husband.
The trip was more complex in those years before the Massachusetts Turnpike was finished, though by then she was used to traveling to pursue her love of music.
At 19, she left behind her Midwestern upbringing to test her talents in New York City, where one night she and her friends at a YWCA were invited to attend a dance with some servicemen.
Joseph Pagliuca “was the person meeting and greeting us as we got off the bus,” she recalled in an interview in September 2017. He offered his hand as she stepped onto the sidewalk and into her future.
“I never dreamed I would meet somebody who I would live with the rest of my life,” she said of that night.
Mrs. Pagliuca, whose marriage brought her to other states, to Japan, and to Europe, where she always found time to sing with jazz ensembles, died of cancer May 27. She was 86 and had lived for the past decade in Chapel Hill, N.C., to be near her daughter.
“Singing was her passion,” said her daughter, Bliss Turner of Chapel Hill. “I grew up listening to her sing. By the time I was 10, I think I knew all the jazz standards and show tunes by heart.”
With a voice that made audiences think of the late singer Rosemary Clooney, Mrs. Pagliuca performed in nightclubs, at weddings of relatives, and at home.
“She would play the piano and would often have people over rehearsing for musicals, or just singing in general,” said her son Stephen Pagliuca of Boston, who is cochairman of Bain Capital and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. “She actually sang at my oldest son’s wedding, when she was 75.”
Music had been a sustaining part of Mrs. Pagliuca’s life since her childhood in Illinois.
“She was a very creative person, and her real passions in life were singing and writing,” her daughter said. “She also was quite a good writer. She liked to write poetry and arrange songs.”
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Mrs. Pagliuca was very young when her parents’ marriage ended. She and her mother moved to Mount Vernon, Ill., where her mother was from, and where young Janet “was raised by aunts,” her son said.
She emerged from childhood “a very positive, forward-looking person,” he said. “She welcomed all sorts of people.”
In high school in Mount Vernon, “she performed in all the plays, singing and acting,” her daughter said. “She studied voice throughout high school.”
Upon graduating, Mrs. Pagliuca won a summer program spot with the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, which is known as The Muny. She spent a year at Northwestern University, “but then she decided she wanted to pursue a career in music in New York,” her daughter said. “She was probably there for a few months when she met my dad.”
Joseph Pagliuca had served in World War II and had been recalled to serve as a second lieutenant during the Korean War.
In New York City, his Army unit had some spare funds, decided to put on a dance, “and sent an invitation to the ladies at the YWCA,” Mrs. Pagliuca recalled in an interview for the obituary of her husband, who died in September 2017.
“He was a very nice and very handsome young man,” she said.
“I’m going to marry that girl,” he told friends after meeting her as she got off the bus.
“And he did, which was typical,” she said. “If he says he’ll do something, he usually does it.”
They married in 1952, not long after they met. His work took them to Framingham, Basking Ridge, N.J., Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Texas, and Japan again.
While the family was in New Jersey and she was raising her children, Mrs. Pagliuca returned to college and graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University — a ceremony her whole family attended.
“I was at my mother’s graduation,” her son said. “I think back on it — she had three kids and was going to school, and got a degree.”
She also received a teaching certificate, and she taught social studies.
“My mother was my seventh-grade history teacher, so I had to work extra hard,” her son said. “She was an excellent teacher. She was very patient and very supportive of students.”
When the family lived in Houston, she taught at Clear Lake High School, which her daughter attended.
“She always had a real love of learning,” her daughter said. “I can remember her reading books with us when I was very small and telling us stories. It was always her intention to get a degree.”
It was also Mrs. Pagliuca’s intention to keep singing wherever she lived.
“She had a very adventurous spirit,” her daughter said. “She loved to travel and she encouraged my dad to take the job he was offered in Japan. We traveled the world with his job throughout my elementary and high school years, and everywhere we went, she continued to sing.”
In Japan, Mrs. Pagliuca performed at clubs in Tokyo “with a group of very talented jazz musicians,” her daughter said. “She was very creative, and she pretty much made that work wherever she was. I take my hat off to her.”
“I think she could have been a professional singer,” Mrs. Pagliuca’s son said, “but she put that on hold to raise three kids.”
No matter what language was spoken where Mrs. Pagliuca lived — in Japan or in Europe — she found musicians with whom she could sing.
“Isn’t music the universal language? She always made it work,” her daughter said. “She was quite a remarkable lady.”
Services will be private for Mrs. Pagliuca, who in addition to her daughter and son leaves another son, Jeffrey of Denver; 10 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
A basketball fan since her youth in Illinois, Mrs. Pagliuca watched two grandsons play for Duke University, and she attended the last two Celtics playoff games this year.
Though by then her health was declining, “she was always looking forward to every next day,” her son said.
“She had unconditional love for people,” he added. “I’d describe her as just a gentle soul.”