|RONALD JAMES ELLISTON
Born March 27, 1937 in Centralia, Illinois; the son of Armon Joseph “Kinky” Elliston and
Cassie Lucille Elliston. Died February 25, 2015 at Agapé Senior Midlands Hospice House in
Preceded in death by: wife, Veronica “Ronnie” Wells-Elliston; son, Michael Elliston; and
sister Judith “Judo” Diane McGoran. Survived by: sons Jason Elliston of Chapin, SC; Timo
Elliston of Brooklyn, NY and Charles Elliston of Houston, TX; step-son Sean Wells of
Columbia, MD; sister Sherry Hudson of Las Vegas, NV; brother Michael Elliston of Atlanta,
GA; and grandchildren Angela Elliston of Puerto Rico; Jenna Elliston of Houston; twins
Aaron & Julia Elliston of Brooklyn, NY; and Emily Elliston of Chapin, SC.
Ronald James Elliston, or Ron, as he was known to his friends, and Ronnie to his family,
was a child prodigy. He didn't have much choice in the matter, it has been said. The story
goes that the day he was brought home from the hospital, his dad, "Kinky" (after his hair,
not his proclivities) sat down at the piano with him and began pushing down the keys with his
tiny hands. So one of the first experiences of the new world for the new infant was the sound
of the piano. Armon Elliston had a jazz quintet in the 1940s, and so Ron came by his
avocation, and his love of music and the piano in particular, naturally.
By the time he was 8 or 9 years old, he had outstripped all the local piano teachers in his
hometown of Centralia, Illinois and began taking lessons in St. Louis. He played clarinet in
the high school band, as did his sweetheart and first wife, Diane Loomis. He would joke at
the time, "What is worse than a clarinet? Two clarinets." Later, he could be found playing
piano in the various clubs that featured music in Centralia and in the area.
In college, Ron was a member of the esteemed University of Illinois Jazz Band led by
John Garvey. This legendary band, which included such luminaries as Cecil Bridgewater,
Jim McNeely, James Knapp, Howie Smith and Ron Dewar, toured nationally and
internationally to Western and Eastern Europe. After graduating he moved to Chicago and
became established on the jazz scene, playing at the Playboy Club locally and on the road
to venues including Carnegie Hall with the Dick Shorey Orchestra, the Prague Jazz Festival,
and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where he accompanied Benny Carter and Sarah
Vaughan. He later returned to University of Illinois to complete his Master’s Degree. During
this time, Ron began his teaching career and he co-authored “Keyboard Musicianship
Books I & II” with James Lyke.
In 1974, Ron accepted a job as Associate Professor of Music at the University of
Maryland,College Park, where he trained students in classical and jazz music, and would do
so for the next 30 years. Ron was instrumental in establishing the Jazz Studies program at
Maryland. He initiated the Jazz Piano Study and Group Piano Improvisation Courses, and he
designed and taught the first jazz history course and the first jazz workshop at the University
of Maryland. He also arranged for his friend and musical hero Bill Evans to come and give a
performance and workshop at the UMCP campus.
Both at the University and out of his home, Ron established himself as one of the areas
preeminent piano teachers, providing a unique philosophical approach to learning music
that attracted students on both the amateur and professional level. He pursued an
understanding of ones personal learning process and the impediments to learning that were
commonly self-imposed by the student. He used to say, “the music is not difficult, YOU are
At night, Ron would perform regularly at the One Step Down, Charlie’s Georgetown, the
Top O’Foolery, Blues Alley and other DC-area music venues. It was at the Top O’Foolery, in
1976, that Ron met and accompanied vocalist Ronnie Wells. This began a lifelong
collaboration that resulted in countless performances together, 14 albums, and marriage in
In 1983, Ron and Ronnie began a Jazz Piano and Vocal Workshop course at UMCP. This
class was a combination workshop, lecture and master class approach to the problems of
singing and accompanying professionally in the jazz and pop fields. Ron said at the time,
“The Jazz Piano-Jazz Vocal Techniques workshop is by far the most effective and
rewarding musical experience that I have been able to provide for my students or myself
since coming to the University of Maryland. The Workshop has created an environment that
is both challenging and conducive to improvisation. I am most pleased that Ronnie and I
have been able to create an atmosphere so similar to that of a professional one.
“It is our basic philosophy that learning to be a musician is essentially an individual and
self-centered endeavor that cannot be successfully achieved in a traditional academic
environment. Our first task is to convince students who are conditioned to the traditional
academic approach that we are not going to ‘spoon feed’ them or, in any way, ‘teach’ them
how to improvise. Instead, they must learn to think for themselves and assume the
responsibility for tapping their own creative resources. Once they accept that responsibility,
we can guide and help them to discover their own individual, musical personalities. The
professional arena is the only real ‘school’ where this can succeed and Ronnie and I are
grateful we have come so close to realizing our objectives.”
The class was hugely successful, and Ron and Ronnie would go on to establish The
Elliston Music Studios for Jazz Studies, teaching similar vocal and piano workshops out of
their home 5or 6 nights a week for over two decades. Ronnie would joke that the workshops
had gotten so big that they needed a bigger venue.
In 1993, Ron and Ronnie founded the East Coast Jazz Festival (ECJF), to take place in
the Washington Metro area each President’s Day weekend, and to support the Fish
Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, Inc (FMJS). FMJS was a nonprofit organization created by
Ron and Ronnie in honor of Elmore “Fish” Middleton, a Washington, DC jazz radio
programmer, whose commitment to promoting jazz music and supporting emerging jazz
artists became the guiding principle behind the festival. The mission of the FMJS was “…to
assist emerging jazz artists throughout the nation in their educational and artistic
development; offer a wider base for the presentation of jazz; and insure the continuation of
jazz education and performance in public schools and institutions of higher learning.”
The festival provided a performance venue for both headlining and local artists, as well
as school bands. It also hosted the FMJS competition, which provided financial assistance to
emerging jazz artists. Many winners of the scholarship have gone on to have prominent
careers in music and jazz, including guitarist Lionel Loueke, saxophonists John Ellis and
Grace Kelly, drummer Rodney Green, pianist Helen Sung, and bassists Reuben Rogers and
The ECJF ran for 13 years until Ronnie Wells’ death from lung cancer in 2007. Ron would
continue teaching out of their home and would perform on occasion. But, with his own health
failing, he moved to South Carolina in 2013 to live with his son, Jason Elliston. Ron passed
away on February 25.
Centralia Sunday Sentinel, October 14, 1968, page 7
Ronald J. Elliston, 516 S. Elm St., is a young man who is really on the move! He is a
member of the University of Illinois Jazz Band which is currently on a two month of Europe.
The band will give about 25 to 30 concerts in Ireland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Austria.
Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. John Garvey is leader of the group and he has some
interesting thoughts about the band. He says diversity and the ability to play everything they
feel are the qualities which have made the University of Illinois Jazz Band and its members
the masters of college jazz in America. Garvey’s philosophy, which has permeated the band
itself, is that there is no good or bad music but only different types of music which may be
played well or poorly. For instance, a Beethoven concerto is not necessarily a “higher” kind
of music than an American hillbilly number. “You can’t start with a preconceived notion of
what a jazz band should sound like,” says Garvey, a professor of music at Illinois. “The
abilities of the people in the band must be the only restriction in what it can do.” The U. of I.
band has people that can play anything from Mozart’s Requiem Mass to what its leader
describes as “raunchy blues,” a range one doesn’t find in many other jazz bands — amateur
or professional — in the U.S. Garvey states “I think we can do more things better than any
other band.” To that I will add that we are proud that a Centralian is a member of the
University of Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival Program, 1968
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS JAZZ BAND
The University of Illinois Jazz Band, winner of the award for Best Overall Jazz Group last
year,returns to defend their title. This marks the fifth straight year the group has appeared
at the CJF,winning the Best Big Band award in 1964, and playing in the finals in 1965 and
1966. The band is the top Jazz group in an expanding jazz program at U. of 1. The program
was begun in 1960, and now consists of five big bands, several combos, and a course in
writing for the jazz band.
The band has performed with J. J. Johnson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Eric Dolphy and
will be directed for a month by Duke Ellington during the Sabbatical leave of their dynamic
and unpredictable director, Mr. John Garvey.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS JAZZ BAND -University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois.
Personnel: Leader -John Garvey. Alto and Soprano Saxes -Howard Smith. Alto Sax -John
Wonsowicz. Tenor Sax, Bb and Eb Clarinets -James Cuomo. Tenor Sax -Lawrence
Cangelosi. Baritone Sax -William Feldman. Tenor Sax -Ronald Dewar. Flute, Piccolo -Ann
Kozuch. Oboe, English Horn -Louis Hall. Flute, Vocal-Don Smith. Trombones -Paul Vander
Gheynst, Richard Roush. Jerry Kampton, Allen Engelberg. Bass Trombone -James
Fulkerson. Tuba -Paul Rainey. Trumpets-Kenneth Ferrantino, Jerry Tessin, Allen Moore.
Trumpets, Flugelhorn-CecilBridgewater, James Knapp. French Horn -Terry Pettijohn. Piano
-Ronald Elliston. Guitar, Piano-Mitchell Hennes. Bass -Robert Witmer. Vibes -John
Aschoss. Conga Drums -Maurice McKinley. Drums -Charles Braugham.
WASHINGTON CITY PAPER
Arts & Entertainment : Music Review
By Christopher Porter • February 9, 1996
Despite a small cold, vocalist Ronnie Wells sings passionately, gesturing as if she were
serenading an enraptured audience that was hanging on every word. But Wells isn't in the
familiar confines of a smoke-filled jazz den, but rather a foam-damped recording booth at
Bias Recording Company in Springfield, Va., finishing her new CD, Mostly Ballads.
Wells stops the recording midverse, saying the tempo is too fast and that she bumped
the microphone. "It's like it has a life of its own because of its 6/8 feel," she says. Her pianist
and husband Ron Elliston claims, "I don't hear any 6/8," thoughtfully twisting his Santa Claus
beard. "Well, 3/4," laughs Wells, blowing her nose and beginning the take again. This time,
the ballad gets the full treatment: In sync with her trio, Wells dramatically extends or sharply
enunciates her words. She quietly caresses the last verse before belting the last phrase,
leading the song into a soaring crescendo. The tune touches down gently; Wells ends it with
a beautiful low vibrato. Elliston shouts, "That's a take!”
The bassist and drummer separate for a rest, but Elliston and Wells embrace, give each
other a peck on the lips, and leave the room smiling. Anyone who's spent time in a recording
studio knows stress usually runs so high that the only buss between bandmates is the kiss
of death. .But with over 10 years of marriage and nearly 20 years of performance behind
them, the duo has worked out the tension.
Other than in performance, the two rarely see each other because of their heavy
schedules. Elliston is a music professor at the University of Maryland-College Park, where
Wells is a part-time vocal teacher. (Both also give private lessons.) But Wells' primary
responsibility is Artisans Inc., the umbrella company comprised of their label (Jazz Karma
Records), their production unit(East Coast Jazz Festival), and their educational organization
(Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund Inc.). And she recently donned another cap—as
director of the first African-American Arts Festival to be held in April 1996, at the university.
The 5th Annual East Coast Jazz Festival is the duo's current baby. From Feb. 15-18,
four days of "hot bebop, Latin, swing, and blues" from the likes of trumpeter Clark Terry and
guitarist Charlie Byrd will make up the body of festival, but at its heart is the Fish Middleton
Jazz Scholarship Competition. Fish Middleton was the program director at WPFW and was
very supportive of area musicians like Wells and the Harper Brothers (Philip and Winard).
Middleton was to write liner notes for The Gift, Jazz Karma's first release, but died before
So in 1983, Wells and Elliston started the scholarship to continue Middleton's promotion
of new artists and jazz education. Wells and Elliston were still not romantic partners at that
point, but had worked together for seven years.
When queried on how they met, Elliston replies, "Very cautiously." He moved from
Champaign,Ill., in 1974 to teach jazz studies at the university. Soon after his arrival, he
ventured into the District in search of a music club, but wound up at just a regular bar. The
watering hole Elliston discovered, however, was located under the old Top O' Foolery House
of Jazz, so when Elliston asked the bartender about D.C. jazz joints, the guy told him to go
upstairs—where house vocalist Ronnie Wells was performing.
It was not until 1976 that the duo got together—musically, that is. Elliston approached
Wells, a D.C. native, because "I liked Ronnie a lot and...." Wells interrupts and states, "You
liked my singing," and both break out laughing. Wells is quick to clarify because, while the
duo were linked professionally for years, there was no romance, because Elliston was
married and Wells was involved with another man. "The truth of the matter is, though no one
believes this, I never really had any romantic feelings at all about Ronnie," Elliston says. "It
was purely a musical association.” Elliston's feelings toward Wells grew immediately after he
separated from his first wife. "It really took me by surprise," he explains, "and according to
what Ronnie tells me, it really took her by surprise as well." Elliston ponders whether "it was
because of the racial thing that [a romance] wasn't really considered.”
Growing up in a small town in southern Illinois, Elliston was surrounded by racism, though
hewas blithely unaware of the effects of prejudice on his attitudes. Elliston admits that even
while the cancer of his prejudicial upbringing is benign, "I'm not really free of it yet.”
"I think that kind of conditioning when you're growing up plants a lot of things that [are] so
subliminal that you're just not totally aware," Elliston says. But time spent with Wells and her
family (as well as his own brother, who also married a black woman) opened his eyes.
When Wells and Elliston started dating, they once walked around Annapolis, watching
headssnap around in amazement. "Annapolis is one of the most strongly racial places on
the continent. I was shocked," says Wells. "Ron and I thought when we got together [the
racial thing was our main concern, but that was the least of it because we made a joke of it,"
she says. "Any time we found someone who was racist, we'd just kinda play it up!”
Neither can exactly remember the year when their romance started ('82 or '83) or when
they got married ('84 or '85), but Wells claims, "It's the greatest decision in my life." She
pauses for a second to make sure her comment sinks in, but Elliston pops in with a "No
comment!" and the two break up laughing.
Elliston "pleads the Fifth" when asked if any problems arise from working so closely on
their music, but he does say, "Ronnie is a strong-minded woman. I'm kinda wishy-washy by
comparison." While not denying times of tension, both claim a similar taste in music and
arrangements. "There's not many pianists that I enjoy working [with], just piano and voice,"
Wells says. "Ron seemed to fall into how I imagine [musical support should be]....That's why
we became so close, musically," she continues, "and I think that's why people felt something
else was going on, just because of that basic respect we had for one another. We just felt
Jazz Singer Ronnie Wells-Elliston, 64
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
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
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.
MID-ATLANTIC JAZZ FESTIVAL: History
Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, in the grand tradition of the East Coast Jazz Festival…
The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (MAFJ) is presented in the true spirit and intent of the
former East Coast Jazz Festival (ECJF). Founded in 1992 by vocalist/vocal educator Ronnie
Wells, for the next 15 years the ECJF was produced by and benefited The Fish Middleton
Jazz Scholarship Fund, Inc. (FMJS). ECJF was originally created in honor of Elmore “Fish”
Middleton, a Washington, DC jazz radio programmer, whose commitment to promoting jazz
music and supporting emerging jazz artists became the guiding principle behind the festival.
The mission of the FMJS was “…to assist emerging jazz artists throughout the nation in
their educational and artistic development; offer a wider base for the presentation of jazz;
and insure the continuation of jazz education and performance in public schools and
institutions of higher learning.” That mission directly mirrors the intent of the Mid Atlantic
Jazz Festival, which is being developed by a committee of concerned arts citizens &
professionals convened by the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD).
For 15 years, up until Ms. Wells passing on to ancestry in March, 2007 she and her
husband and co-founder, pianist-educator Ron Elliston presented the ECJF. The festival
ultimately became a mid-winter tradition in the Washington, DC metro region. Additionally,
the ECJF was the primary vehicle and fundraising element behind the FMJS.
As a mid-winter event the ECJF was unusual in the pantheon of jazz festivals, which are
normally summertime phenomena across the globe. But based on the FMJS mission the
midwinter date made perfect sense, enabling the ECJF to be positioned in the midst of the
school year, attracting aspiring jazz students from around the region and beyond for
performance and competition opportunities.
The Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival (MAJF) represents an auspicious renewal of the spirit and
intent of the ECJF, as a showcase for some of the DC area’s finest established and
emerging artists, student ensembles, and a healthy dose of renowned touring jazz artists as
well. MAJF is designed to take the ECJF mid-winter jazz festival tradition to the next level and
to further enhance arts & culture in the Washington, DC region.
The MAJF venue remains the former Doubletree Hotel in Rockville, MD, which has since
the passing of Ms. Wells been significantly redesigned as the Hilton Hotel. Our host hotel
has even dedicated the suite where the founder lodged during the ECJF weekends as the
Ronnie Wells Suite. And along those lines the central MAJF venue will be re-positioned as
the Ronnie Wells Room during the re-launch of this great tradition, the weekend of February
Produced by the Jazz Academy of Music, which hosts a burgeoning annual jazz camp for
aspiring high school jazz musicians, the MAJF makes an indelible commitment to jazz
education. The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival will build upon the legacy of ECJF in presenting the
region’s finest talents and visiting masters in unique “festival” programs and configurations,
Next Generation jazz artists, and student ensembles.
The 2010 Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival will present a three-day jazz experience from
February 1921, 2010. The MAJF will draw enthusiasts from across the eastern seaboard,
enticing the over ,000 jazz lovers who previously frequented the ECJF, including many fans
who traditionally traveled to the ECJF from disparate parts of the country.