Jazz Singer and Educator Ronnie Wells-Elliston passes away at 64

Washington area jazz vocalist and educator Ronnie Wells-Elliston passed away March 7 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, MD after a long battle with lung cancer. She was 64.

Ms. Wells-Elliston was a pillar of the Washington jazz scene for more than three decades. Born Veronica Burke, she was a 1960 graduate of Washington's Cardozo High School. She attended Howard University and held administrative jobs over the years with federal agencies and private businesses.

Ronnie began singing professionally in the mid-60's, appearing at local clubs, including Top O'Foolery, Blues Alley and The One Step Down. She also performed at the Kennedy Center, the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel, MD., The Music Center at Strathmore , on local television stations, and at jazz festivals worldwide, including Holland, Switzerland, France, Norway, Montreal, several venues in South America, and in St. Thomas where she was voted "Best Virgin Island performer for 1993." She has shared the stage with internationally-known jazz artists such as Billy Ekstine, Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith, Oscar Brown, Jr., Jimmy Witherspoon, Dorothy Donegan and Warren Vache, to name a few. In recent years she has performed regularly with her second husband, pianist Ron Elliston. She has numerous CDs to her credit, having recorded on the CBS/Columbia record label with The Widespread Depression Orchestra and on several other independent record labels, including her own label, Jazz Karma Records, that she formed with Elliston.

Apart from her career as a performer, Ronnie also made a significant contribution as an educator, producer, and festival organizer. A number of talented vocalists have emerged from her studio in recent years and she has been active in producing recordings for them through Jazz Karma Records. In 1983, Ms. Wells-Elliston was appointed Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland's Department of Music where she taught jazz vocal techniques under a program that she designed, developed and implemented. Her teaching experience at the University, as well as through her private studio, along with her experience in conducting jazz seminars at many educational institutions throughout the country, made her a much sought-after adjudicator at competitions, including The Billie Holiday Competition (Baltimore, MD), The Maryland Educator's Competition (College Park, MD), the Jazz Program for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (Harrisburg, PA), and the American Traditional Competition (Savannah, GA).

Along with all these activities, Ronnie was one of the founders of the East Coast Jazz Festival in 1992, initially in response to area schools' reducing or eliminating their music programs. The nonprofit festival supported the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund Inc. for young jazz musicians, named in memory of Elmore "Fish" Middleton, a programmer for WPFW-FM. The festival has featured performances by local college and high school bands, the best Washington-area professional musicians, and nationally known artists such as bassists Buster Williams and the late Keter Betts, guitarist Charlie Byrd, pianists Lonnie Smith, Junior Mance, and Dick Morgan, saxophonists Buck Hill, Houston Person, David "Fathead" Newman, Bobby Watson, Lou Donaldson and Richie Cole, trumpeter Terell Stafford, flutist Ali Ryerson, and vocalists Etta Jones, Ernie Andrews and Rebecca Parris, to name just a few. Central to the festival was the finals of the scholarship competition for young jazz musicians that attracted players from as far away as Indonesia. The festival took place each February but did not occur last month because of construction at the venue and Mrs. Wells- Elliston's illness. Without her presence the future of the event is in doubt, although it continues in spirit with weekly jazz at the Sabang Restaurant in Wheaton, MD., another program launched by Ronnie Wells-Elliston.

Ronnie is survived by her husband, her sister and brother, a son from her first marriage, and four stepchildren.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ronnie Wells-Elliston
  • Subtitle: East Coast Jazz Festival Founder Was Pillar of Washington DC Area Jazz Scene
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