It was two weeks before Jim Ebert was to begin work on pop star Avril Lavigne’s second record, Under My Skin. He was sitting in a bar in Herndon when he was struck by a sudden pinching sensation causing numbness on the right side of his face. His concerned friends suggested it could be serious and encouraged him to have it checked out. Once he did, Ebert’s world turned inside out.
The diagnosis: brain stem glioma, an extremely rare cancer in adults that is so challenging, even biopsies aren’t recommended. “The brain stem,” Ebert sighs. “So it controls all your stuff.” Like breathing, swallowing, heart rate, and countless other vital functions.
That was 20 years ago, well past the “expiration date” some doctors suggested, he says.
It wasn’t until eight years ago, on a drive back from the Duke Cancer Center in Durham, North Carolina, where he was receiving chemo and radiation treatment, that Ebert “felt like I was at a point where I was going to survive.” His next thought was, I need to do something for other people with cancer, with whatever skills I have, and this is what I can do: I can produce a song for you, with a video, so that your family and your friends have something permanent regardless of what happens with the cancer. It will be lifelong.
To accomplish that, Ebert created the nonprofit Cancer Can Rock. The 57-year-old Falls Church native, who now lives in Leesburg, handles all the production details—from renting and staffing the studio to hiring the musicians to polishing the finished product—for recording a professional-caliber song and video. There’s just one catch, and it’s a doozy: “You just have to have a pretty aggressive cancer,” he says flatly.
Since Ebert started the foundation, some 30 musicians, ranging from full-time professionals to part-time backyard players—as well as a few who simply had a song in their head—have created a permanent musical legacy in front of his microphone.
Ebert has hosted fundraising concerts at area venues in the past, but beginning at noon on June 13, Cancer Can Rock will see its most ambitious event yet: an all-day outdoor music festival at 868 Estate Vineyards in Hillsboro, north of Purcellville.
“I’m not just tooting my own horn, but the people I bring out, you would probably pay $30 to see them on their own,” Ebert says. “But you’re going to see 10 of them for $20.” He adds that the vineyard has “wide open spaces in a field with picnic tables, and it’s dog-friendly. What’s not to like?”
He’s hoping for 1,000 attendees throughout the day. Artists include Justin Trawick, Juliana MacDowell, Jason Masi, and others. Past Cancer Can Rock beneficiaries Jenny Langer, Jack Bond, and Brennan Loveless are also on the bill.
“You immediately see the results of what happens with the proceeds,” he says. “Go to the website and see the 30 musicians we’ve worked with. That’s what the money goes into: renting the recording studio, hiring musicians, lodging, flying, meals.” The songs, along with the videos, showcase the artists in the best light possible. “We don’t do anything substandard,” Ebert says.
While Cancer Can Rock is already national in scope—he’s also recorded songs in Los Angeles and Nashville—Ebert would like to expand the foundation’s reach. “We all want to cure cancer, we all want to cure different diseases, but I didn’t feel like just putting money into a pot and hoping that it does the right thing,” he says. “We help one person at a time. I hope to grow that to where we can be nationwide and I can oversee 10 producers across the country.”
Ebert has recorded hundreds, maybe thousands, of musicians as a producer, engineer, and mixer, including Madonna (a remix gig), Toni Braxton, Butch Walker, Ice Cube, and Meredith Brooks (he recorded and mixed her 1997 Grammy-nominated hit “Bitch” from the album Blurring the Edges). But few experiences have touched him the way recording what he calls the “survivors” does.
“It’s just the most fulfilling thing as a human and a producer, to have someone sit next to you [in the studio] and say, ‘This is maybe one of the greatest days of my life. I forgot I had cancer today.’
“When someone tells you that, it’s pretty powerful.”
Cancer Can Rock Festival
June 13, noon; 868 Estate Vineyards: 14001 Harpers Ferry Rd., Hillsboro; cancercanrock.org