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Despite a small cold, vocalist Ronnie Wells sings passionately, gesturing as if she were serenading an enraptured audience that was hanging on every word. But Wells isn’t in the familiar confines of a smoke-filled jazz den, but rather a foam-damped recording booth at Bias Recording Company in Springfield, Va., finishing her new CD, Mostly Ballads.
Wells stops the recording midverse, saying the tempo is too fast and that she bumped the microphone. “It’s like it has a life of its own because of its 6/8 feel,” she says. Her pianist and husband Ron Elliston claims, “I don’t hear any 6/8,” thoughtfully twisting his Santa Claus beard. “Well, 3/4,” laughs Wells, blowing her nose and beginning the take again. This time, the ballad gets the full treatment: In sync with her trio, Wells dramatically extends or sharply enunciates her words. She quietly caresses the last verse before belting the last phrase, leading the song into a soaring crescendo. The tune touches down gently; Wells ends it with a beautiful low vibrato. Elliston shouts, “That’s a take!”
The bassist and drummer separate for a rest, but Elliston and Wells embrace, give each other a peck on the lips, and leave the room smiling. Anyone who’s spent time in a recording studio knows stress usually runs so high that the only buss between bandmates is the kiss of death. But with over 10 years of marriage and nearly 20 years of performance behind them, the duo has worked out the tension.
Other than in performance, the two rarely see each other because of their heavy schedules. Elliston is a music professor at the University of Maryland-College Park, where Wells is a part-time vocal teacher. (Both also give private lessons.) But Wells’ primary responsibility is Artisans Inc., the umbrella company comprised of their label (Jazz Karma Records), their production unit (East Coast Jazz Festival), and their educational organization (Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund Inc.). And she recently donned another capas director of the first African-American Arts Festival to be held in April 1996, at the university.
The 5th Annual East Coast Jazz Festival is the duo’s current baby. From Feb. 15-18, four days of “hot bebop, Latin, swing, and blues” from the likes of trumpeter Clark Terry and guitarist Charlie Byrd will make up the body of festival, but at its heart is the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Competition. Fish Middleton was the program director at WPFW and was very supportive of area musicians like Wells and the Harper Brothers (Philip and Winard). Middleton was to write liner notes for The Gift, Jazz Karma’s first release, but died before completing them. So in 1983, Wells and Elliston started the scholarship to continue Middleton’s promotion of new artists and jazz education. Wells and Elliston were still not romantic partners at that point, but had worked together for seven years.
When queried on how they met, Elliston replies, “Very cautiously.” He moved from Champaign, Ill., in 1974 to teach jazz studies at the university. Soon after his arrival, he ventured into the District in search of a music club, but wound up at just a regular bar. The watering hole Elliston discovered, however, was located under the old Top O’ Foolery House of Jazz, so when Elliston asked the bartender about D.C. jazz joints, the guy told him to go upstairswhere house vocalist Ronnie Wells was performing.
It was not until 1976 that the duo got togethermusically, that is. Elliston approached Wells, a D.C. native, because “I liked Ronnie a lot and….” Wells interrupts and states, “You liked my singing,” and both break out laughing. Wells is quick to clarify because, while the duo were linked professionally for years, there was no romance, because Elliston was married and Wells was involved with another man. “The truth of the matter is, though no one believes this, I never really had any romantic feelings at all about Ronnie,” Elliston says. “It was purely a musical association.”
Elliston’s feelings toward Wells grew immediately after he separated from his first wife. “It really took me by surprise,” he explains, “and according to what Ronnie tells me, it really took her by surprise as well.” Elliston ponders whether “it was because of the racial thing that [a romance] wasn’t really considered.”
Growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, Elliston was surrounded by racism, though he was blithely unaware of the effects of prejudice on his attitudes. Elliston admits that even today, while the cancer of his prejudicial upbringing is benign, “I’m not really free of it yet.”
“I think that kind of conditioning when you’re growing up plants a lot of things that [are] so subliminal that you’re just not totally aware,” Elliston says. But time spent with Wells and her family (as well as his own brother, who also married a black woman) opened his eyes.
When Wells and Elliston started dating, they once walked around Annapolis, watching heads snap around in amazement. “Annapolis is one of the most strongly racial places on the continent. I was shocked,” says Wells. “Ron and I thought when we got together [the racial] thing was our main concern, but that was the least of it because we made a joke of it,” she says. “Any time we found someone who was racist, we’d just kinda play it up!”
Neither can exactly remember the year when their romance started (’82 or ’83) or when they got married (’84 or ’85), but Wells claims, “It’s the greatest decision in my life.” She pauses for a second to make sure her comment sinks in, but Elliston pops in with a “No comment!” and the two break up laughing.
Elliston “pleads the Fifth” when asked if any problems arise from working so closely on their music, but he does say, “Ronnie is a strong-minded woman. I’m kinda wishy-washy by comparison.” While not denying times of tension, both claim a similar taste in music and arrangements. “There’s not many pianists that I enjoy working [with], just piano and voice,” Wells says. “Ron seemed to fall into how I imagine [musical support should be]….That’s why we became so close, musically,” she continues, “and I think that’s why people felt something else was going on, just because of that basic respect we had for one another. We just felt the music.”
For information about the 5th Annual East Coast Jazz Festival, Artisans Inc., or Jazz Karma Records, contact P.O. Box 7190, Silver Spring, MD 20907, or call (301) 933-4346. CP