The Humble Grace and
Artistry of Jan Wheaton
There is something supremely pure about Jan Wheatonís voice. It somehow manages to be strong and deep while sounding lovely and lilting. Her technique is impeccable, flowing between scat and liquid lines with finesse and grace. Her song selection reflects a love of beautiful music and an appreciation of the creative energy of only the best songwriters and lyricists. She is a unique talent who has been adding her gorgeous voice to this townís collective chorus for over four decades.
The singer came from a small town in Kansas and found her way to Madison in a time of great turmoil. She had to push past soldiers with their rifles and bayonets protecting the ROTC building from protesters in the 60s and was awakened from a deep nightís sleep as a bomb tore apart Sterling Hall, all while working in the bacteriology department at the University. Since those days, she has played with so many bands, sung in so many clubs and melted so many hearts that her artistry has left an indelible mark on Madison.
Last year, the Madison Area Music Awards bestowed upon Ms. Wheaton their Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring her continuous contributions to the cityís sonic landscape. As we approach this yearís MAMA ceremony, I sat down with this talented diva to discuss her history, her music and her humble approach to translating the passion of songwriters for her audience. I wanted to know how this seasoned artist from a small, rural town crafted a reputation that has been so honored by the local musical community.
The conversation reveals a thoughtful, caring, creative musician, in love with the songs she sings and the moments when she connects and communicates with her audience. It reveals an academic, working at the University throughout her career and educating a new generation of scientists. And it reveals a fan of music and those who create, heaping praise on those with whom sheís performed and from whom sheís learned so much.
Rickís Cafť: How were you first introduced to music?
Jan Wheaton: From my parents. My mom played piano and my dad sang. Now Iíve said many times, and Iím sure if heís in heaven or wherever and heís watching, heís going to be really pissed, but I never thought much of his voice. And I grew up with this jazz in the house and I really hated listening to it, because it was just all weirdo stuff, old people stuff. This is when Elvis, the Beatles and Little Richard were out and thatís what I wanted to hear. But I had to listen to this stuff at home and I just wished theyíd shut up. But when I finally started doing music, it was that stuff that I knew, even thought I hated it when I was growing up.
RC:When did you start performing in front of people?
JW:The very first thing I did that I got paid for was right after my senior year in high school. I did something for Future Homemakers of America, which sounds rather disgusting now. You could learn to cook and sew and do all that stuff so you could take care of the home. I was in it and I would up going to the state conference and performing for like 3,000 young women. My mom played for me. We did this sort of up-tempo, rock thing and everybody went nuts and they just cheered and cheered and cheered. We only did one song, because thatís what they allowed us to do. So we did the song and walked offstage and people were yelling for us to go back and do more. So, we said okay, so we go back up on stage and the song that we did was "Blue Moon," which was an old song and this was a young crowd. As soon as I sang "Blue Moon," the crowd went "ahhhh" and I thought, "Oh, wow. This is cool." From there it was college. I ran into a jazz trio in a local tavern my freshman year. They were playing the music that I grew up hating. So, I ultimately asked them to let me sit in, and that was it. And Iíve been doing it ever since.
RC: Jazz seems to be one of those words like poetry, in that it means different things to different people. What does that word mean to you?
JW: Iíve always been ambivalent about the fact that people call me a jazz singer, because the tunes that I do arenít necessarily tune that are jazz. I mean, I donít do a lot of Louie Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald kind of stuff. I may do some of their tunes, but I donít do them the way they did it.
RC: But isnít that part of the jazz idea, though, doing tunes that might be considered standards, but doing them in your own way?
JW:Exactly, because we do "Crazy," which is a country tune, for Christís sake, but itís a beautiful song. We do it so that itís still "Crazy," but not quite Patsy Clineís "Crazy." We do Willie Nelsonís "Always on My Mind," but it ainít the same "Always on My Mind. " So I like to think that what I do is sing beautiful tunes and try not to mess them up. Some of it you can jazz up and some of it... well, I donít think thatís what the writer, the lyricist, intended. I donít think I have a definition of jazz. I have a desire to interpret what that lyricist meant with those words and try to get that across to you.
RC: When I think of jazz, I think of approaching a melody from a unique perspective and delivering that line with a sense of poetry and a sense of motion while using the techniques that youíve mastered. And thatís why I think people hear your voice and hear your performance and think of you as a jazz singer.
JW: Thatís what it feels like to me. It is. I mean, these are magnificent songs that these people put together. Where were they in their minds and in their lives where they would write this down, that they would say this? Were they hurting, were they feeling good? Itís my job to figure that out and make you feel whatever it is that they felt... And I do have a decent ear. I can listen to something and I can hear three or four lines of music that go with it. And what I wind up doing is jumping back and forth between all of these different melodies that Iím hearing, to make whatever you hear come out. You know who learned this from, if Iíve even really learned it yet? Nancy Wilson. She has been my goddess since I very first heard her; her phrasing, her enunciation, the whole thing. When I first started singing, you wouldíve thought I was her. It was her arrangements, it was her choice of songs, it was her feel for the music that I was hearing. Over time, I got past that to the point where I may still sing her arrangement, but it doesnít sound the same. But a lot of the songs that I do I do because she has done them. I listen to her just to hear what one can do with their voice and I try things because based on the fact that I know she can do it. Now, I canít do everything she does and Iím really quick to recognize that.
RC: Are there any people with whom you feel particularly lucky or honored to have worked?
JW: One of the very first people that started to hire me was Johnny Shacklett. He was a guitar player. He was left handed, so he played his guitar upside down and backwards. He was a wonderful guy. He got here through the Air Force when Truax was an active base. When I first came here, it was with him that I played and toured. And later it was guy named Ted Jackson, who was one of the best pianists in the world. He played like my mom played, which made it easy for me to work with him. Iíve worked with everybody, really. And Iíve learned from all of them. I mean, Richard Davis took me to New York with him for ten days back in the eighties and it was great. I learned from that. Everybodyís helped me. I donít know if Iíve been much help for anybody else. Iíve been lucky; Iíve been in the right place at the right time.
RC: Is there anybody you havenít worked with yet that youíd like to?
JW: I havenít worked a lot with Bed Sidran. Weíve sort of been on the fringes. I think heís really special. Iíd like to do something with him. It doesnít really matter much what. But just to be able to work with him because he knows stuff that I donít know and I know that.
RC: So you really appreciate music for the education, the learning.
JW: Oh, yeah. How could you not? There is so much out there, so many talented people. People keep saying, ďWhy didnít you go to New York or L.A. and try to make it big?" Give me a break. Do you know how many singers there are?
RC: So, thatís the shy part of you...
JW: No, thatís the realistic part of me. Iím okay. I donít think Iím great. There are a lot of people that are certainly better than I am. Whatís the likelihood that a little girl from a tiny town in Kansas is going to be discovered anyway? I ainít going no place and nobodyís coming here. But thatís okay, because all I want to do is sing.