Jazz Singer Ronnie Wells-Elliston, 64

Ronnie Wells-Elliston helped found and run the East Coast Jazz Festival.
Ronnie Wells-Elliston helped found and run the East Coast Jazz Festival. (2003 Photo By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
Friday, March 9, 2007

Ronnie Wells-Elliston, 64, a versatile jazz balladeer and educator in the Washington area for more than three decades who co-founded the East Coast Jazz Festival in Montgomery County in 1992, died March 7 at Holy Cross Hospital. She had lung cancer.

Mrs. Wells-Elliston formed the East Coast Jazz Festival with her husband, pianist Ron Elliston, 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. She named the scholarship in memory of Elmore "Fish" Middleton, a programmer for WPFW-FM.

The festival has been attended by high school bands as well as professional musicians, including the late bassist Keter Betts and guitarist Charlie Byrd. The festival took place each February but did not occur last month because of Mrs. Wells-Elliston's illness, and Ron Elliston said he doubted that the event would continue without her.

Veronica Burke was a native Washingtonian and a 1960 graduate of Cardozo High School. She attended Howard University and held administrative jobs over the years with federal agencies and private businesses.

In the 1960s, she began singing at clubs, including Top O'Foolery, Blues Alley and One Step Down. She also performed at the Kennedy Center, the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel and at jazz festivals worldwide.

She and her husband formed their own record label, Jazz Karma, and released several albums together.

She was known for embracing the jazz standards of the Great American Songbook -- the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, among others. She had a whispery, slightly husky voice and preferred slow ballads, although she could render convincing up-tempo works as well, critics wrote.

Over the years, she sang with a variety of orchestras, including the Fairfax Symphony; the Commodores; the U.S. Navy Band's jazz ensemble; and the Widespread Jazz Orchestra, which specialized in music played by the black big bands of the 1920s and 1930s.

She also taught jazz vocal technique at the University of Maryland's music department in the 1980s and 1990s. She lived in Silver Spring.

Her marriage to Kenneth Wells ended in divorce.

Survivors include her second husband, whom she married in 1982, of Silver Spring; a son from her first marriage, Sean Wells of Laurel; four stepchildren; a sister, Cervantiz Burke-Davis of Greenbelt; and a brother, George W. Burke Jr. of Baltimore.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company