Popular Philadelphia jazz and blues vocalist Zan Gardner of Merion Station, who gave soul and righteous feeling to her music, died Tuesday evening, one day before her 59th birthday. She was on her way to have dinner with a friend when, according to police, a minivan broadsided her Chevrolet Trailblazer at Cheltenham Avenue and Ivy Hill Road.
She was pronounced dead of head trauma at Chestnut Hill Hospital one hour later, said Officer Raul Malveiro, a Philadelphia police spokesman. The accident is under investigation.
Born Suzanne Gardner Lagerman on the Main Line to Constance Lagerman, the governor of the Pennsylvania Society of Mayflower Descendants, she could have been a debutante. But she chose a different path.
Ms. Gardner began her professional singing career Oct. 15, 1988, she told a Philadelphia Daily News reporter in 1993. That was the date her husband of 17 years, Mark Caraccia, was at the Jersey Shore with another woman.
"When I started this, my marriage was going down the tubes, and the sadness of that gave me a lot of energy to put into music. It was a cathartic experience. Even if I sang unhappy songs, there was hopefulness," she said.
"My singing was more of a vehicle to finally release those emotions, to channel them somewhere. It just amazes me: If my marriage hadn't broken up, I wouldn't be singing now."
And sing she did.
"I certainly haven't had to pound the pavement looking for work. I guess I get between 20 or 30, 35 jobs a month," Ms. Gardner said in a 1991 Inquirer article.
Her throaty delivery solidly established her in Philadelphia-area venues including the Mellon Jazz Festival, Zanzibar Blue, the North Star Bar, and the swankiest clubs and restaurants.
She was a bluesy jazz singer with a style similar to Betty Carter's, yet her sound was entirely her own.
She often performed with pianist Dave Posmontier, trumpeter John Swana, bassist Chico Huff, drummer Steve Holloway, and other musicians.
"Zan was an anti-diva," Posmontier said. "When she was asked who played in her band, she always said, 'I'm just one of the musicians.' She was one of us."
Ms. Gardner was, in her own words, "a little chub or a blond pumpkin."
But it was her voice she was blessed with. An enraptured critic observed that "she makes sparks fly in the night."
Born in Bryn Mawr and raised in Narberth, she was a bit of a rebel at Lower Merion High School, where she acted in plays. Ms. Gardner left school after her sophomore year to travel, her mother said.
"She did earn a GED and attended Harcum College for a few semesters," Lagerman said. Ms. Gardner worked a variety of jobs until she started singing.
"We met during her hippie period," said her former husband, who was a musician.
"When Suzanne sang, she was able to get to some other place. She took me there, too, every time I watched her perform. She did that for a lot of people."
The marriage ended in 1989, but the childless couple remained friends.
Ms. Gardner suffered serious injuries in January 2006 when she was hit by a car. A diabetic, Ms. Gardner had one toe amputated. She was injured again when she fell in December in her home and fractured both shoulders. Long hospital stays drained her funds and left her in pain, her mother said.
On April 15, 120 of her friends and fellow performers packed the Mermaid Inn at a fund-raiser to help her with medical bills.
"Zan was genuinely surprised that so many people cared for her," friend Seth Holzman said. "We all loved her. She brought joy to many."
In addition to her mother and former husband, Ms. Gardner is survived by a brother, Richard Lagerman.
A musical celebration of her life is being planned. Memorial donations may be sent to a nonprofit that helps jazz and blues musicians in crisis, Jazz Bridge, 3008 Limekiln Pike, Glenside, Pa. 19038.
To hear Zan Gardner's music, go to http://go.philly.com/zangardner