Last Saturday night at the Jazz Arts Society's first concert of the season, singer Ronnie Wells took on a set of songs heretofore inextricably linked to the great ladies of jazz who made them famous.
Wells deftly performed Ella Fitzgerald's "Lady Bee," Nancy Wilson's "Dearly Beloved," Billie Holliday's "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and Dinah Washington's "Bitter Earth."
By the end of the set, Wells had clearly put her special stamp on each one. Resisting the familiar vocal phrasing and techniques of the better known songs and singers, she scattered the lyrics and rolled the notes in her own purring style, confirming that Ronnie Wells is onto a place in jazz history.
She kicked off a Jazz Arts Society season especially devoted to the jazz performer. The society's first season, two years ago, featured concerts that "examined jazz from its early roots to its current form and future direction" with Calvin Jones and Quintet, the Hal Posey Ensemble and the Carl Cornwell-Olaive Jones Quintet. Last year's season explored the "instruments, voices and dances of jazz" with John Eaton, Terry Plumeri, Jack Zucker, Jim Howard, Chuck Royal and the Melvin Deale African Heritage Dancers and Drummers.
As in all Jazz Arts Society performances, Wells' concert offered the audience a chance to learn about the genre as well as be entertained. Between sets, Wells changed from a long black sequined gown to a brown caftan, sat in a cushioned chair at the right of the stage and talked about her life and music.
"We all started as a little kid in church right?" Wells teased.
Her own start in church was not exactly smooth. She once got some neighborhood kids together for a church singing group but it didn't last long, she said. Her professional career began 10 years ago, after her sister surprised her by calling her to the microphone at a downtown club.
Her first professional gigs were at the old Tallyrand and Top O'The Foolery. Recently, she's appeared at such well-known local jazz clubs as Blues Alley, One Step Down, The Pigfoot and The Wharf in Alexandria, Va., where she is now appearing weekends through Nov. 1.
"After that , who knows?" Wells joked from the stage. But to fall back on, she at least has a "day gig" -- a steady job as an administrator with what she described as "an automated sciences company" in Silver Spring, Md.
Jazz Arts Society's 1980-81 series continues with: Arthur Dawkins on sax, flute and clarinet Nov. 8; Tony Taylor relying only on the ole vocal chords Jan. 12; Big "Nick" Nicholas on tenor sax and vocals Feb. 14; Jim Howard Jazz Ensemble playing that big band sound March 14, and Melvin Deale and company dancing and drumming April 25.
For more information, contact the Jazz Arts Society at 484-1697.