Nancy Fox will perform at the JCC of San Francisco on June 30.
Nancy Fox will perform at the JCC of San Francisco on June 30.

Cancer survivor, 82, to bring joy in patriotic piano concert

Nancy Fox can’t wait to return to the JCC of San Francisco for her first performance there since the pandemic began.

The pianist-storyteller will be playing Independence Day-themed songs such as “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” from 3 to 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 30.

She’ll maybe throw in Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” and also some original compositions, definitely “Love and Joy.” Both carry special meaning for her these days.

While Fox has entertained seniors at JCCs, rehab facilities, retirement homes and other Bay Area venues for over 15 years, this performance sets a new marker for the longtime San Anselmo resident.

Fox, 82, has metastatic breast cancer, her third bout with the disease. She’ll be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life.

And though she is fully vaccinated and boosted, a bout of Covid could be fatal. That’s why Fox will be performing in the airy, 3,600-square-foot atrium. “One of the reasons I feel safe at the JCC is because they’re going to put me in a place where I am protected,” she said, where even people on the floor above “can stand by the railing and listen between classes.”

“I thought it would be fun,” said JCC Lifelong Learning Manager Shiva Schulz, who has brought in Fox for birthday celebrations and other events. “She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm for what she does.”

Playing piano has been a constant in Fox’s life. Her father, a musician, “taught me when I was 3.” Her first song: George Gershwin’s “Oh, Lady Be Good!”

From there, Fox took up standards from the ‘20s, ‘30s and beyond — all learned by ear, rather than by reading notes.

“My parents thought I should have some lessons. But after four or five, I didn’t want lessons anymore. So I hid under the piano when the teacher came. That was the end of my lessons.”

She had no interest in classical music: “I wanted to play jazz, Gershwin, Berlin” — and still does.

A white grand piano graces the living room of the hilltop home Fox shares with her husband, former J. managing editor Woody Weingarten. She plays for fun, pleasure and, more recently, healing.

“One of my doctors said, ‘Your quality of life is the most important thing. Playing the piano actually helps with your healing.’

“It does something to you physically and emotionally. It’s what I like to do.

“I also love to tell stories,” she added, which explains why her hourlong presentations include carefully researched backstories behind popular American songs. She has compiled more than 70 programs on composers, lyricists and other musical topics that resonate with elders.

Ever since she played the piano years ago for her mother and others at a day program for those with memory loss, “I realized I had something to say to seniors,” Fox said. “At the time I was middle-aged, with none of these lines on my face.”

When she played, listeners responded, often singing along or tapping their toes.

After retiring from a career that included public relations for the San Francisco Historical Society, San Francisco Zoo, JCCSF and others, Fox upped her game to about 25 piano gigs a month — until Covid hit.

Of the countless people she has entertained, one still stands out: “I was playing at a rehab facility. I saw a woman in a wheelchair, and she was tap dancing really well to what I was playing. Turned out she was a professional tap dancer.”

Fox was floored by the older woman’s skills — and it provided a valuable lesson. “The idea is: You can get through handicaps and still do things in your life that bring you and others joy,” she said. “This is pervasive, still, in what I am doing.”

As for her advice to others fighting adversity: “Find what it is that is positive that you experience” — whether it’s being outdoors in nature, meditating, listening to music, whatever — “and do one thing every day that brings you pleasure.”

“Celebrate July 4 Early with a Live Performance”

Nancy Fox on piano, 3-4 p.m. June 30 at JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St. Free.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.