Women Making Music: Wendy Jones, The Divine Ms. “J”
By Peggy Ratusz
When I got off the phone with Wendy Jones the day of our phone interview, I first said out loud and to myself “Whew!” Then I got to cracka-lackin on some overdue items on my “to do” list. Why? Because now when I think there’s not enough time in my day to get everything I need to get done, done, I will be inspired by Wendy Jones to put a smile on my face and keep up that steady pace. This is a seemingly tireless, determined, dedicated, enthusiastic, humble, endearing, affable person who has spent the better part of her life educating young adults, mentoring teens and young adults, making her own kind of music, all with an infectious, buoyant attitude.
The first clue that Wendy Jones would end up with music degrees, win awards, educate, sing on stage, act on stage and travel the world, came from a little seed that planted itself in a little girl watching cartoons on a little TV set in a little family room in the little town of Steubenville, Ohio. “Those Looney Tunes captivated me when I was just a tiny little girl, and I remember plopping myself in front of the television set on Saturday mornings to hear the marvelous background music coming from those cartoons. I remember wondering and asking people around me, “who is making this music and how are they making this music?”
At the age of six, the family moved to a town outside of Nashville during a time when “crossover country” was just a gleam in some record producer’s eye and joining middle school band in the state of Tennessee branded a kid in a negative way. The ridicule didn’t stop Miss Jones from taking up the flute in seventh grade. So when her folks uprooted her once more at the age of 12, it was a godsend for young Wendy because Hendersonville, North Carolina proved to be the polar opposite in terms of the Arts, contrasting greatly what she had endured just one state over. “It felt so nice to be free and proud to play the flute and dance.”
After high school, Appalachian State University is where she continued her education on a flute scholarship. In her sophomore year she “got up her guts” because she could no longer fight the latent urge to sing. With no formal experience or training, she decided to double major in voice. It was a pivotal choice indeed! She went on to gain a Masters in Music degree with emphasis on vocal performance. After graduation, she accepted a position as adjunct professor in her alma mater’s music department teaching opera and art song.
It wasn’t until she was offered a role in a professional theatre production of the musical, Pajama Game, did she venture outside the elite status of classical and opera singing to fill the “belting, big, sassy little role” of Babe. The hoops she put herself through, adjusting her teaching schedule in order to create and accommodate her desire for round and diverse life experiences and goals in musical theatre like this one and more, is testimony that passion for purpose and hard work go hand in hand.
This foundation, validation, spawned what came after her adjunct professorship, which were many years spent as a full-time professional singer and actor. She’s appeared in leading rolls on stages of prominent theaters across the U.S. including Florida Repertory Theatre, Flat Rock Playhouse, Little Theatre on the Square, Temple Theatre and Blowing Rock Stage Company. Some of the major rolls she’s portrayed include Kate, in Kiss me Kate, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Miss Sandra in All Shook Up and Brenda in Smokey Joe’s Café. One of nine singers chosen, after an extensive auditioning process that spanned three continents, she landed a coveted position to appear in Tokyo Disney’s Broadway review, ENCORE! When that contract was fulfilled one and a half years later, she signed on for an additional year and a half doing another Tokyo Disney production. The Japanese people left an impression on her that inspires her in most everything she’s done since. Their calm through the chaos and their amazing generosity of spirit and friendship are indelible.
One of Jones’s many influences is Rosemary Clooney. A divorce enabled Jones to redirect her life’s path a bit and in the healing process she wrote a one-woman show based on Clooney’s life called Everything is Rosie, while headlining on cruise ships. During that time she also wrote a cabaret show called Ladies and Gentlemen which celebrates the pioneers of traditional pop and standards like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Each show premiered in South Florida at the Winter Park Playhouse in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
A bit road weary, she moved back to Western North Carolina in 2004 and continued doing professional theater work. In 2009, she began a stint at the Unemployment Commission that ended with a layoff last year. This gave her a break from music and in turn taught her even more about herself through people she was exposed to outside the Arts. To help keep her right brain stimulated, she began to cultivate friendships with local musicians, supporting their live shows. She found that many of them returned in kind, urging her to get back into the pool and revitalize her own musical purpose. Alliances with locals like drummer Rick Dilling, orchestra leader and crooner Russ Wilson, bassist Zack Page, permitted her to explore the Jazz genre. The universe responded after her layoff from the commission and like clockwork, she re-upped her teaching and mentoring programs finding herself once again with an over flowing schedule of students and opportunities.
After accepting a teaching position at The Music Academy-Asheville, she incepted a Jazz Vocal Workshop there and recently, a newly formed High School Vocal Jazz Ensemble. She is also currently on the faculty at UNC-Asheville where she teaches Jazz and vocal techniques to music majors and where she directs the university’s vocal Jazz ensemble –Studio 18. As if that weren’t enough, in her spare time she enjoys assisting the choral students at Brevard High School under the direction of Mary Beth Shumate.
She met drummer Rick Dilling for the first time when she was nineteen and a flute major at Appalachian State University and while he was teaching Jazz Drum set there. They were in the same production of the musical Anything Goes where the band itself is part of the production. They chatted about the show after it wrapped and expressed a desire to get together musically again sometime. She didn’t talk to him again until she was in graduate school and was asked to sing at a faculty recital tribute to Cole Porter. Being part of the faculty Jazz quartet, Dilling was the drummer for that showcase. Again, their conversation was similar to the last, telling each other how great it was to work together and that they hoped to work together again sometime. Then she went onto do her cruise ships and Tokyo years, not connecting with Dilling again until she moved back to the area. As fate would have it, she was contacted by a former voice teacher who asked that she facilitate a master vocal class and concert. Needing a band to accompany the students in the Broadway show tunes production, Rick was recommended to her to play. The mutual feelings of respect for each other was, yet again, discussed in short and sweet terms after the concert. Fast forward two more years where now a former cruise ship singer and friend of Wendy’s planned to do a cabaret show in Banner Elk. She needed help putting a local band together. Wendy naturally thought of Rick Dilling, exalting to her friend Rachel, how professional and easy going he’d been to work with on and off over the years, convincing her that he was the talented drummer to get. This was yet another encounter in a history of countless professional encounters that would later, and unexpectedly to either of them, become more.
When Wendy decided to record her first CD, I Remember You, it was Rick she contacted and hired to help her form a backing band and to play drums for the project. Through Rick she met bassist Zack Page and his twin brother Andy who would play guitar. Rick and Zack would become two of her core band members in what is now The Wendy Jones Quartet.
During the recording process, Rick and Wendy got to know each other better, finally. For more than ten years, their life trajectories were on different paths but when the timing was right, the professional relationship eventually turned romantic. It’s a cliché, I know, but they’ve been making sweet bop, swing, pop and Great American Standards music together since. “He just gets me, and grounds me and I’m exceedingly grateful for that. The way it all unfolded, we were like the characters in the movie When Harry Met Sally.”
She’s learning what Jazz is and is now developing ideas for another recording that will be a collection of songs that reflect the true essence of the genre. Michael Jefry Stevens, Jazz composer and pianist whom she often works with, has written some songs that they will be performing in November and that could be included on her next recording project. Guitarist, Andy Page is another musician she’s working with to showcase Django Rhinehart arrangements. “Working with Andy to put this playlist together allows me to incorporate what I know of French music from my classical music studies, as well as my love for jazz, and put them together.” For updates on a show in the future from them and to keep current on all her upcoming performances, be sure to visit her beautiful website and listen to her stunning renditions from I Remember You her aforementioned CD release.
• She’ll be performing on Saturday, November 9th in Kingsport, TN for Symphony of the Mountains with Charles Goodwin Big Band.
• On Sunday, November 10th, she and Michael Jefry Stevens will be at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall’s upstairs lounge from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., which will be an evening of standards and gorgeous original music written by Stevens.
• Wendy will also be appearing with Russ Wilson and his Big Band On Sunday, November 17th at Isis Restaurant and Music Hall, in the downstairs hall starting at 8 p.m., while they celebrate Russ’s birthday and his beloved music of the 20’s and 30’s.
• On Wednesday, December 18th, join Wendy and Jason DeCristofaro on vibes, Danny Iannucci on upright bass and Rick Dilling on drums for a lovely evening of Jazz holiday favorites at The Phoenix Lounge in Brevard starting at 8 p.m.
• White Horse Black Mountain is where you’ll enjoy the swinging sounds of the season with Jones, Rick Dilling on drums, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Zack Page on upright bass in a special cabaret written especially for the White Horse, beginning at 8 p.m.
Everything is coming up Wendy Jones! I know I sound like a broken record, but Wendy is no exception to the beautiful rule that’s established itself in the process of interviewing the amazing women I’m fortunate to get to know better through writing this feature. I’m proud to call her friend and you’ll be dazzled, impressed and amazed with yet another Woman making Music in WNC!
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, writer and vocal coach. You can reach her at email@example.com or check her work out online.