By Deborah Johnson ©2009

The voice is undeniably identifiable. From the early days of the Billboard Top 20, Grammy-nominated Come Thou Almighty King recorded with the New York Fellowship Mass Choir, to the 2007 release of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, the music, the message, and the voice of Rev. Timothy Wright has made a lasting impression on Gospel music.

Rev. Wright released more than a dozen albums featuring many songs that he wrote. Remember such great songs as Who's On The Lord's Side and You Must Come In At The Door? Rev. Wright's music, known for its "up-tempo praise songs and powerful mass choir sound," just made you want to have church.

Crowned with the moniker the "Godfather of Gospel," Rev. Wright was a dynamic force in Gospel music and is a voice that will long be remembered. The recipient of many awards, the most recent accepted by his sons on his behalf at the 2009 Stellar Awards in Nashville, TN, his music had every church choir singing songs from his repertoire.

The 61-year old Grammy-nominated gospel singer and pastor of Grace Tabernacle Christian Center Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn, New York, died on April 23, 2009 from injuries sustained in a July 2008 automobile accident that sadly took the life of his wife of 37 years [Betty] and a grandson [D.J. Wright].

We pay tribute to the voice, the music, the Man.

By Andrea R. Williams and Terrence Richburg © 2009

So far 2009 has seen some great and unexpected losses in the music industry. One of those losses that hit the Jazz community hard was the passing of National Basketball Association and Smooth Jazz bass guitarist, Wayman Tisdale.

Few people in life excel at two totally unrelated careers, but Tisdale was certainly not common by any means. Standing tall at 6'9", the former Tulsa Oklahoma native found fame in college playing hoops where he was a three-time Big Eight Conference Player of the Year. Ultimately, he played for the Indiana Pacers, the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns. He even won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team in 1984.

Although Tisdale became a household name due to his impressive basketball skills as a power forward, he always said that music was his "first love". Growing up with a pastor for a father, he taught himself to play and honed his bass skills at his home church. He launched his music career with the 1995 release Power Forward. That CD was followed by 7 other projects, ending with his 2008 release, Rebound.

Wayman's solo bass sound was one of crystal clear tone with a distinct percussive delivery all his own. He frequently used inspirational themes in his music, covering the popular" Ain't No Stopping Us Now" and releasing the all Gospel project "21 Days" in 2003. Through his music Tisdale was able to simultaneously bring together Smooth Jazz, Gospel Jazz, and positive message R&B lovers all at the same venue. Fans were uniquely thrilled to experience his love of music and the joy of his faith-based salvation, authenticated by his incredibly warm spirit and infectious smile. As we celebrate the life and gifts of Wayman Tisdale, we know that his musical legacy will live on and on in our hearts.


August 29, 1958 - June 25, 2009

By Terrence Richburg © 2009

As the moments of time slowly pass and the gradual shift in life begins to carefully reflect on what harvest the years of living have produced, it's difficult to consider without regarding the contributions of those who lived during the same era of one's existence. Yet, many times it isn't the quantity of the fruit reaped, but rather the quality of the taste it yields that matters the most.

There's no question that the most recognized and accomplished icon ever to grace the human stage is Michael Jackson . Having lived what many would consider a short life, Michael's recent death stunned the nation and shocked the globe to its core. Most would agree that no other artist in the history of musical entertainment has captured the hearts of so many people for so long. Whatever Michael chose to do, his presentation was always the greatest that he could produce and normally the best anyone had ever seen or heard. I believe that Michael Jackson stood for the essence of quality and the epitome of excellence, no matter the cost.

Michael Joseph Jackson , the celebrated "King of Pop", was one of the most commercially successful entertainers of all time. His distinctive contributions to music and dance made him a prominent figure in pop culture for many years. His achievements number so many that it would almost seem a travesty to name only a few without taking the time to chronicle them all in detail. However, some of Michael's most qualitative contributions unfortunately often go unmentioned: that from his youth he inspired young musicians and singers to dream of future careers in music [like me]; that he opened so many doors in the music industry; that he gave more individually as a humanitarian and a model of giving than most; that Michael brought together musicians and artists of every field in an effort to feed the hungry: and, that Michael Jackson's life's work released the minds of so many would-be artists regardless of musical genre as to what can be attained, if they work hard to deliver the absolute finest of their ability and ingenuity.

While interviewing several Jazz and Gospel Jazz artists JGC has found this to be a common theme of encouragement in the advice given to aspiring musicians. It's no wonder that Michael Jackson and renowned Jazz musician, composer, arranger and producer, Quincy Jones crossed paths and thus created an amazing array of collaborated success which crossed genre lines and inspired many.

I've been fortunate to experience in my lifetime supreme examples of the tremendous tenacity of the human spirit (such as that of Michael Jackson)--to achieve the ultimate with all that God has supplied. What choices we make, God has granted as a freedom to all of us. But regardless of those choices it's a remarkable vision to behold a glimpse of the magnificence of God's power and creativity [even on a small scale] in the notable gifts and achievements which can be obtained if we try.

While preparing for a come-back, multi-date concert tour to begin this year, Jackson died at the age of 50 in Los Angeles, California. Michael being part of our lives at such a prominent level for so long, we will miss him and the art of his genius. Let us all continue to pray for the Jackson family, that the Lord, Jesus Christ and His presence would comfort and keep them at this painful time of bereavement.


By Terrence Richburg © 2009

It's probable that trailblazers and trendsetters of the modern Jazz movement with an immense revolutionary impact within the culture were quite unaware of the relative breadth, depth and scope of their personal contributions--not only as they relate to the world of music, but also to the bounty of wealth and blessings poured out upon society as a whole. The children of African-American descent became both benefactors and heirs to an overflowing well of golden treasure that knows no end to the earned dividends from investments paid by all who came before. They labored long and hard out of an abundance of artistic and spiritual zeal throughout the years with one goal in mind--to be the very best they could be and for that "best" to attain ultimate "excellence." Whether it was excellence for themselves, their audiences or for their God it has validated these ancestral assets, which continue to grow and bare much fruit from within the hearts of priceless offspring beyond inspiration then and now.

There are just too many to mention, but as we continue to remember the transcendent offerings of the "gifted," especially as they relate to the African-American historical chronicles, two very special sons of the Jazz movement, accomplished artists/musicians swiftly rise to the top of our list of "masters"--the incomparable Max Roach and the forever popular Grover Washington, Jr .

Max Roach (January 10, 1924 -- August 16, 2007)

Drummer Max Roach was the premier pioneer, and innovative architect of the "straight ahead" "bebop", "swing" Jazz style. In essence all modern Jazz drummers of today copy the style of Roach in some way, form or fashion. Max began performing on drums at the very early age of ten with gospel bands and groups. Although Roach went on to study formally at the Manhattan School of Music, his African-American religious musical experience played a very significant role in Max's development and stylistic approach, as well as his passion for the black-American cultural arts movement.

In the early 1940s, Max began working with such greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and many others, while serving as the house drummer at Monroe's Uptown House. There and at Minton's Playhouse, Roach participated in jam sessions which led to the development of Bop. Later during the 40s, 50s and 60s he went on to perform with several other major Jazz personalities including Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and Clifford Brown. Roach maintains a chief distinction in the annals of Jazz history. His inspired performances as a soloist, as well as his veteran technique rich in virtuosity, complexity and nuance for improvisational expression, establish him as one of the most exceptional and ground-breaking drummers of all time.

Grover Washington, Jr. (December 12, 1943 -- December 17, 1999)

One of the most popular saxophonists ever, Grover Washington, Jr., is credited as one of the major founders of the commercialized smooth jazz-pop style that won over broad public support throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. By the late 1990s Washington had produced a prolific collection of successful album projects in a wide-range of styles and saw his music pave the way for the commercial sensation of such smooth jazz giants as Kenny G. For so long Grover Washington, Jr. was the leading innovator in his field. His musical foundation tended to dwell in R&B and Soul/Jazz instrumental combos, but Grover also excelled when playing straight-ahead Jazz. A master Jazz musician, Washington never shunned the opportunity to put himself on the line to experiment with spontaneous musical challenges.

Influenced by his father, who also played sax, Grover started playing music when he was ten and within a couple of years began working in clubs. While touring with the Four Clefs from 1959-1963 and doing some freelance performances during the next two years, Grover gained invaluable experience towards perfecting his craft. Grover served his country in the United States Army from 1965-67 and then moved to Philadelphia. "Philly" quickly became his home and a major anchor of his musical identity. Washington worked with several organists, including Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond Smith , working as a sideman for the Prestige record label. However, Grover's defining break occurred in 1971, when saxophonist, Hank Crawford was unable to make a recording date and Washington was tapped to be his substitute. As a result Grover became a huge success on the Inner City Blues release--a big seller. From there Grover Washington, Jr. became a household name. After recording the funk Jazz classic, Mister Magic in 1975 and Winelight in 1980, the latter including the timeless Bill Withers classic smash hit, "Just the Two of Us," Washington firmly established himself as "the" premier Jazz musician and recording artist, influencing a host of up-and-coming Jazz musicians. The smooth jazz style Washington founded is also a major inspiration for the musical style of many Gospel Jazz artists.

Jazz Gospel Central would like to remember the valuable contributions of these two pivotal African-American Jazz legends, Max Roach and Grover Washington, Jr ., who both helped to shape the sound and very character of modern Jazz as we know it today.

Special Jazz Tribute: Art Form Trailblazers and Jazz Masters Series: John Coltrane

By Terrence Richburg © 2008

The architecture of modern Jazz as we know it today comes from a long line of master builders who graced the global stage with their God-given talent, supernatural creativity and unselfish service to the mission of sharing this great art form with the world. They are the original trailblazers to whom new Jazz musicians, artists and students of all walks of life return to be mentored, especially if authenticity and excellence is to be sought and achieved within ones playing, technical knowledge and ability. Among these Jazz masters are those who not only served within the famed halls of musical genius, but also those who served our country in the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces. We, therefore, during this season of the year and beyond wish to give special tribute and honor to the Jazz pioneers who are an enduring inspiration not only because of their music, but also because of their military service.

JOHN COLTRANE (September 23, 1926 - July 17, 1967)

John Coltrane is revered as a true Jazz master and innovator as a sax player, prolific composer and recording artist who proved to be among the most significant yet controversial icons in Jazz history. He worked with the "crème of the crop," including such Jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

Being the son of John R. Coltrane, amateur musician and tailor, and Alice (Blair) Coltrane, shortly after his birth John's maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair, was promoted to presiding elder in the A.M.E. Zion Church and moved their family to High Point, NC, where Coltrane grew up. There John learned to play clarinet and E flat alto horn before taking up the alto saxophone in his high school band. When he graduated from high school, he moved to Philadelphia. While accepting non-music related jobs, Coltrane briefly attended the Ornstein School of Music and studied at Granoff Studios. John also began working in local clubs. But in 1945, Coltrane was drafted into the Navy and was stationed in Hawaii. Fortunately John never saw combat, but he continued to play music and, in fact, made his debut recording on July 13, 1946 with a quartet comprised of other sailors.

Coltrane is very unique in that his mutable style is marked by a more conventional (but ingenious) array early on, while later he explored the outer edges of Jazz with a more experimental approach to his works. Coltrane's relatively short career produced an abundance of Jazz compositional masterpieces. These Jazz "standards" are instantly recognizable and treasured by musicians and audiences, old and new, world-wide and are re-recorded and performed over and over again by contemporary Jazz artists.

No one questions Coltrane's somewhat religious commitment to Jazz or doubts his impact on the history of music, as a whole. Furthermore, John Coltrane is sometimes portrayed as one of Jazz's most influential artists, but it's difficult to find followers and students of his work who can actually reproduce the level and authentic style of his performances. Still, John Coltrane continues to inspire all Jazz musicians towards innovation, taking musical risks, and maintaining a sense of devotion to their artistry and craft.

Special Jazz Tribute: Ronnie Wells-Elliston
Her Elegance, Her Music, Her passion, Her Legacy...

By Terrence Richburg
(with Contributing Writer/Editor, Cervantiz Burke Davis) © 2008

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, 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.

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