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Singer Ronnie Wells Dies at 64

Washington, D.C.-area jazz singer and vocal teacher Ronnie Wells-Elliston died Wednesday March 7 at Holy Cross Hospital of lung cancer. She was 64.

In 1992, Wells-Elliston and her second husband, jazz pianist Ron Elliston, cofounded the annual East Coast Jazz Festival, held in Rockville, Md. The charity concert featured amateur and professional jazz musicians, playing to benefit the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship fund, also founded by Wells and her husband. They named the fund for Elmore “Fish” Middleton, who was a D.C. jazz radio programmer for WPFW-FM (89.3).

On their own Jazz Karma Records, Wells and Elliston recorded numerous albums, mostly together, but some featuring Wells as a solo artist. She also appeared with the Widespread Jazz Orchestra on CBS/Columbia Records.

Her professional career as a vocalist began in the ’60s. Through the years she appeared in various television and stage performances, working with world-renowned jazz musicians such as Billy Eckstine, Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith and Oscar Brown, Jr.

As a live performer, she had traveled the world, from Canada to South America to Europe, playing nightclubs and festivals. In America, she has sung at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian, the Boston Globe and Pittsburgh Jazz Festivals and at times performed with the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra as well as the U.S. Navy Commodores Orchestra.

Noted for her penchant towards American jazz standards, Wells competed at a variety of singing contents, including Baltimore’s Billie Holiday Competition, the Maryland Educator’s Competition in College Park, the American Traditional Competition in Savannah, Ga. and many others.

The University of Maryland’s Department of Music brought Wells onto its faculty in 1983, where she taught in the jazz vocal program as assistant professor. She also taught jazz seminars at other institutions nationwide.

Born Veronica Burke, Wells grew up in Washington, graduating from Cardozo High, later enrolling at Howard University. Up until her death, she resided in Washington-suburb Silver Spring, Md.

Due to her worsening condition in February, the East Coast Jazz Festival was not held that month as scheduled, thought it has been rescheduled under new sponsors for 2008.

Wells is survived by her second husband, Elliston; her son Sean Wells of Laurel from her first marriage to Kenneth Wells; four stepchildren; her sister Cervantiz Burke-Davis of Greenbelt; and her brother, George W. Burke, Jr. of Baltimore.

Photo by Ron Kearns

Originally Published