DC Jazz Legend Ronnie Wells passed on March 7, 2007, in Silver Spring, MD. For over 30 years Ronnie Wells was known as one of the top jazz vocalist on the East Coast but that description is limiting and incomplete. She was also an educator and mentor to many emerging jazz artists in the Washington, DC area and since the founding of the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, internationally.
Getting her start as a "house vocalist" at the Top O'Foolery in DC, Ronnie developed her unique style by working with different groups who appeared at the club around her. Usually clubs use a house band and bring in different vocalists to work with the house band. This unique set up introduced Ronnie to some of the best jazz musicians in DC and caused her to become a very versatile performer. After years of performing on the DC jazz scene Ronnie Wells married a piano player she loved to work with, Ron Elliston. As a musical partnership Ronnie and Ron recorded several recordings on the Jazz Karma label, an independent label dedicated to the preservation of straight ahead jazz.
Over the past 16 years Ronnie Wells committed herself to the development and presentation of the East Coast Jazz Festival, one of the few surviving straight ahead jazz festivals. The festival was held in the Washington, DC area and most recently in Rockville, MD. Performers at this festival were a virtual Who's Who in Jazz as well as performances by middle school, high school and college jazz bands. A major part of this festival is to present emerging jazz artists. These artists submit recordings which are critiqued by a panel of judges and the top ten are selected to compete for scholarships and performance opportunities in front of a live audience and another panel of judges. The top three received scholarships. Some of the artists to successfully go through this process are Lionel Louke, Reuben Rodgers, Allison Miller, Rodney Greene, Dante Winslow, Grace Kelly, Will Anderson, Ben Williams, Paul Olenick, Timo Elliston and many others too numerous to name. More than anything, this festival and scholarship fund demonstrates the passion for jazz and emerging artists Ronnie Wells had.
As a producer, Ronnie Wells was responsible for working on recordings by Paul Carr, Ron Kearns, Buck Hill, Janine Gilbert Carter, Cheryl Jones, Rusty Mason, Nina Stewart and Kim Mills. Many of her former students would send recordings to her for her opinion before going into final production. Her workshops for students were "on the job training" giving them a realistic view of what to expect on the band stand and in the studio. Even after they had completed her workshops if they ran into problems on gigs or in the studio they knew Ronnie was only a phone call away.
As a performer, Ronnie Wells performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a featured performer in several presentations by legendary presenter, Martin Williams. She also frequently performed at the One Step Down, the Smithsonian Jazz Cafe and Blues Alley in DC and festivals and venues all over the United States and Europe. Ronnie received an award as the top jazz vocalist in the Virgin Islands, a first for a non-islander.
Ronnie Wells is survived by her husband, Ron Elliston, one son, four stepsons, a sister and brother and a host of former students and friends.