Ronnie Wells-Elliston , a Jazz artist of unprecedented talent, elegance, poise and beauty within and outwardly soared to great mountainous heights of musical manifestation, while humbly choosing to walk with those laboring in the vineyard of artistic expression--a journey toward opportunity and aspired greatness only to be grasped with a helping hand and a sincere heart. Ronnie Wells indeed was that sincere heart and beauty personified as a woman, as a teacher, but most of all as a friend to all who had the privilege of knowing her intimately and professionally.
Born Veronica Burke, Ronnie Wells, a native Washingtonian started her musical career in the early fifties playing and singing in church choirs and subsequently began performing in the 1960's in Jazz clubs locally--especially at The Talleyrand, the Top O' Foolery, Blues Alley, One Step Down, then the Kennedy Center, the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel and at Jazz festivals worldwide. Ronnie's signature sound was her passionate embrace of the Jazz standards of the Great American Songbook -- Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, among many others. Her voice ignited immediate attention with its unique timbre of whispery clear and slightly raspy rich tone juxtapositions. Ronnie served up unforgettable, inspiring renditions of slow intimate ballads, as well as exciting up-tempo swing favorites.
One of my initial exposures to the Jazz genre was actually through my aunt Ronnie who in the early 70s invited me as a young musician to play bass on some of her early Latin Jazz demo recordings--which probably explains my insatiable attraction to Latin rhythms and this style of Jazz in my own writing and arranging. I also remember our family holidays as we gathered together in celebration of Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's. These were extraordinary times in which Ronnie graciously shared herself with her family and friends. It was just us, yet without any compromise of genuine excellence in her singing she performed personal offerings of vintage Jazz and even Gospel selections for "just us" to enjoy. We were all profoundly better just because of her presence and her generous gift of love through the music she treasured--Jazz.
Over the years, Ronnie graced the stage with a wide array of first-class musicians, artists and orchestral ensembles, including Billy Eckstine, Lonnie Liston Smith, Oscar Brown, Jr., Jimmy Witherspoon, Al Grey, Clark Terry, Dorothy Donegan, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra (for the Smithsonian Institution), the Commodores (the U.S. Navy Band's Jazz ensemble), and the Widespread Jazz Orchestra, which excelled in music performed by the African-American big bands of the 1920s and 1930s. She also toured and performed in concerts and festivals throughout the world including Holland, Switzerland, France, Norway, Montreal, South America and St. Thomas USVI where she was voted "Best Virgin Island Performer for 1993." And in addition to her own record label, Ronnie recorded on the CBS/Columbia Record label.
Nevertheless, Ronnie Wells was so much more than a renowned, world-class "one of a kind" Jazz vocal stylist. In fact, she in many ways was and is the motivation behind my own desire to preserve the legacy of such an important art form as Jazz, which truly epitomizes the many struggles of life and the ever-renewing strength of its proponents to survive and even thrive "against all odds." Ronnie's zeal and dedication to preserve Jazz was the fuel behind her engine and the energy which drove her to solicit her family's financial and moral support for establishing her own record label with her husband Ron Elliston, Jazz Karma Records. This decision served as the cornerstone of her quest and the centerpiece of her vision's fruition. On the liner notes of her label's debut recording, The Gift released in 1984, Ronnie and Ron declared "The American art form of JAZZ is an art which has suffered throughout its history. The acceptance, exposure and support of this art form has been limited to extremity." Yes, Ronnie was a dynamic vocalist, mentor enthusiast, and educator, but one who truly cherished the work of all the legendary Jazz musicians and wanted to keep their music in the forefront.
In response to area schools' reducing or eliminating their music programs, in 1989 Ronnie's zeal for Jazz gained a new perspective through the non-profit foundation she established, the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship (FMJS) fund , Inc. with the simple mission and vision, "to keep Jazz alive." She desired to carry on the legacy of the late, great Elmore "Fish" Middleton, a Washington, D.C. Jazz radio programmer with WPFW radio, who believed in her, enjoyed her music, embraced her expertise and played her recordings on the radio. Ronnie also had her own legacy to build by making sure that our American Jazz was not only preserved but made to flourish. As Founder and President of FMJS she served as the host and presenter at the FMJS sponsored East Coast Jazz (ECJ) Festival in 1990, a venue designed to showcase emerging Jazz artists. Her hope to obtain corporate funding for this endeavor was unfulfilled and she realized that only a handful of Jazz enthusiast and musicians deemed its worthiness. For 15 years Ronnie stayed awake night after night brainstorming and working effortless trying to improve all areas of the organization. She was unable to obtain corporate sponsorship even from people who really "knew Jazz." After countless days and nights of writing grant proposals she was successful in obtaining several grants. Yet, Ronnie didn't rely on sponsors, but decided to fund the organization herself by refinancing her own home and using her retirement to support the ECJ Festival. Ronnie possessed a true matriarchal love for emerging Jazz artists by seeking to nurture them with an instilled inspiration to learn, an imparted venue to compete and display their talent, and an opportunity to hobnob with many of the great Jazz artists and talents who attended and performed at the festival. As an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, Ronnie founded the Jazz Vocal Studies program there, and during the 1980s and 1990s taught and mentored many of the vocalists performing on the DC Jazz scene today.
Ronnie Wells was aware that Jazz musicians don't enjoy the fanfare or monetary gain of other popular genre artists such as in R&B and Rap/Hip-Hop, but she understood that even those artists without Jazz would not be known if it had not been for the heritage of this "art form" in the American popular music tradition--even as being hailed as our "National Treasure." She also believed that because Jazz was and is an "art form" that is best enjoyed in an intimate venue environment, she sought to keep it in its original ambiance setting, standing steadfast against performances in an outdoor or stadium atmosphere.
Ronnie Wells hoped that someday Jazz musicians would get the recognition deserved because they are true musicians generally performing without technological enhancements. She would say that vocalists are also musicians because they use their voice as an instrument. Ronnie preferred acoustic instruments to electronic. She also proclaimed that a true musician knows music, can read it, write it, play it and compose it. Ronnie knew Jazz to be a lot of things--spiritual, lyrical, poetic, etc. "Back in the day" because Jazz musicians usually played in smoky surroundings and small venues among the masses they were perceived as no-class acts. However, in order to survive they had to be knowledgeable not only about music, but also creative as the truly Crème de la Crème.
Ronnie Wells-Elliston was a real lady, who exemplified the highest degree of intelligence, elegance, grace, style, beauty, talent and passion. She invested all that she was and all that she had in whom and what she loved and admired the most. Ronnie was truly blessed and a true blessing to many all over the world and will be profoundly missed. But the music of Ronnie Wells will never die and her voice can still be experience and enjoyed by all that knew her and will come to know her even now through the dozens of recordings she produced. To my Aunt Ronnie, we will always miss you and we thank you so much for your vision, your conviction, your legacy, and most of all your love you freely shared with so many through your amazing music of Jazz.
Ronnie Wells-Elliston: 1943 - 2007
Terrence Richburg, the nephew of Ronnie Wells-Elliston is an accomplished producer, musician and recording artist in his own right well known in both the Gospel and Jazz communities, who comes with a wealth of knowledge of all musical styles and genres as well as the music industry. He is also a gifted poet and freelance writer currently writing for the DCGospelNewsUpdate.com, The D.C. Gospel News Update E-zine and The Tehillah Report.
Cervantiz Burke Davis is the sister of Ronnie Wells-Elliston who worked with Ronnie in support of FMJS and ECJ Festival productions.