Jan Wheaton -
All That's Jazz

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By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach for ANEW
October, 2005

Jan Wheatonís cat is hiding behind the curtain. Heís been there all afternoon.

When I ask about him, Wheaton rises lightly from her forest-green leather armchair and calls for the cat, a golden-eyed Persian Himalayan named Fuji.

Wheaton walks across the room and pulls aside the drape. Fuji lies along the carpet, absolutely unruffled by the reveal. But I am ruffled. Itís not just the ethereal cloud of blizzard-white fur, or the energized tranquility of his eyes. Such explosive glamour, so modestly sequestered Ė itís startling.

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In a way, Fuji is an apt mirror for Wheaton, a prominent jazz song stylist who is quick to describe herself as "very reserved." A bacteriologist by training Ė she entered the sciences hoping "not to be bothered with people... so I could be in my little lab with my lab coat and Petrie dish," Ė Wheaton is nothing short of a diva, in the truest and best sense of the word. Modest and retiring offstage, no lesser label would be sufficient for her combination of beguiling onstage charisma, vocal talent, inventive approach and musical mastery.

Wheaton spends many days at home Ė preferably alone Ė listening to jazz tunes on her stereo, or on the links practicing her golf swing (she recently had a hole-in-one at Glenway Golf Course). But nights and weekends, sheís out on the town, drawing cheers from enthusiastic audiences whoíve come to hear the sweet tones f other uniquely high-octane, velvety renditions.

"There are in fact two of me living in this body, " Wheaton says with a wink. "One is this educated university administrator. The other is this bitch who likes to hang out in bars."

On the Madison music scene for 40 years, it seems only recently that Wheaton has been getting the level of recognition she deserves. Her first CD, Loveís Three Faces, released in 2001 and went in to multiple pressings. At the 2002 Isthmus Jazz Festival, she was chosen Jazz Personality of the Year. This year, at the second annual Madison Area Music Awards (the MAMAs), she was named Best Female Vocalist, a distinction that covers all genres. Also this year, Wheaton became the second-ever recipient of the MAMAís Michael St. John Lifetime Achievement Award.

Rick Tvedt, executive director of the MAMAs, says that among the organizers, support of Wheaton for the lifetime award was "pretty much unanimous." The Lifetime Achievement Award is "for individuals who have dedicated large portions of their lives to music, who have committed themselves to the music community here, and who have stayed local," he explains.

The timing was right, he says, because of the way Wheatonís career has exploded in recent years, including a second CD release this fall, Expressions of Love.

Iím really happy to see Jan getting some of the attention she so rightfully deserves," says Tvedt. "Sheís very humble and very vibrant. I get a really good buzz when I talk about her. "

Madisonís Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is also a fan.

"Jan Wheaton has long been a jazz pioneer in Madison. She is one of the people who opened Madisonís eyes to the jazz scene," he says. "I asked here to perform at my inauguration party, and she was incredibly well-received." Cieslewicz even appointed Wheaton to the cityís Alcohol License and Review Commission (ALRC) because, he says, "she is so well-respected, both within and beyond the local music scene. I felt she would bring a musicianís sensibility to the ALRCís discussions, and thatís exactly what sheís done.

Small-town roots
Born in 1943 in Cherryvale, Kansas, a predominantly white "tiny little town of 4,500 people," Wheaton grew up on her familyís cattle ranch. In the early 1950ís, when the town planned a new municipal swimming pool for whites only, Wheatonís family successfully "raised a bunch of hell," she remembers. "They were using our tax money."

Getting out of Kansas was a top priority, so the young Wheaton followed her parentsí advice to get a college education, studying science at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Her mother was a church pianist and organist; her father "thought he could sing," says Wheaton, rolling her eyes heavenward. Growing up, she sang at school and traveled with the church choir. Her mother taught her piano and her parents "were always pushing me to sing every time someone came to visit."

When she first left for college, Wheaton was relieved: "Okay," she thought. "I never want to sing another note." But in her first week away, fate got the better of her. One night at a local club, Wheaton asked a jazz trio if she could sing a few numbers, just for fun. "They were playing all those sappy love songs Mom and Dad were always singing," she recalls. And Wheaton has singing them ever since.

After earning an M.S. in bacteriology, Wheaton embarked on a university career spanning 35 years, moving from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene to the UW-Madison Department of Bacteriology and then to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, where she worked as a teaching specialist, coordinator for minority and disadvantaged students, and for ten years, as assistant dean. She next became associate athletic director for student services, and then, until retiring in 2001, was both assistant dean of students at the student affairs office and the director of the Campus Information and Visitor center at the Red Gym.

Nights and weekends, she sang.

"Music is my life. Itís what allowed me to stay at the University for 35 years and not go berserk," she says. "So did changing jobs over the years. I donít think thereís any job that you just absolutely love every day. Or if there is, I wasnít in it."

Wheaton has never married or had children. "I figured out a long time ago, this music takes a lot of time. A career takes a lot of time. And families take a lot of time. So I picked the two I wanted," she says matter-of-factly.

Breaking into the scene
"I kind of muscled my way in," says Wheaton, of breaking into the early Ď60ís Madison music scene. "Subtlety is my mantra. If somebody I like was playing, I would show up and ask to sing," For years, she felt she wasnít taken seriously. "Itís hard, really, being a girl singer. The other musicians Ė the men Ė didnít consider me a fellow musician. Theyíd just put me on near the beginning for diversity."

But she began getting phone calls. People whoíd heard her sing wanted her to play parties, cocktail hours festival and other functions.

No longer the token girl singer, Wheaton now holds the reins, sizing up the budget and scope of the gig and hiring musicians to form a combo that fits each venue.

Since retiring from the University, Wheaton has had more time to grow musically.

Itís still the same old music that Iím exploring, but I havenít done some of these songs in this way," she explains. "I take more chances. Iím tenting my range."

Pianist Matan Rubinstein, a Ph.D. candidate in music composition, is Wheatonís regular accompanist.

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Sheís wonderful to work with," Rubinstein says of Wheaton. "Very tough and strong. Sheís brilliantly musical. She has some of the most interesting phrasing Iíve ever heard in my life in jazz. Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn Ė sheís up there with them. Sheís a real musician."

Wheaton and Rubinsteinís chemistry on Expressions of Love is dynamite, with novel approaches to venerable standards. On an especially shimmering "Itís Almost Like Being In Love," Wheaton springs effortlessly against Rubinsteinís nimble piano into a breathtaking scat solo.

"Itís about being excited. What a day! What a rare mood! But people donít sing it that way," says Wheaton. "Canít Help Loviní That Man" is similarly refreshing: itís carefree, defiant, sparkling Ė not the usual anguished confessional.

"Some of these songs, they tell you how to sing them," Wheaton says, explaining how she arrives at her innovative, fully realized interpretations. "Like in ĎDonít Explainí: ĎSkip that lipstick. Doesnít matter...í" she says, quoting from the Billie Holiday tearjerker. "Thatís pathetic!"

Another component of Wheatonís talent, one she would be too modest to claim herself, is what Rubinstein calls here "extraordinary musicianship." He elaborates, "Her sense of rhythm is really unique. Her sense of harmony is interesting. We really never do the same song in the same way when we play Ė we take the jazz approach. There are moments when we have the same thoughts and take the plunge into the same direction; we take the same risk. Itís a great treat."

So whatís next for Jan Wheaton?

"I want to play as much golf as I can. Itís the challenge," she says. "I used to think it was silly, hitting a little white ball. But I cannot let this game beat me." And, of course, thereís the musical goal of "continuing to live this life of music for as long as Iím able."

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More About Jan Wheaton

Favorite musical artist: "Nancy Wilson."

Why? "Her phrasing. You have no doubt what she's singing about. The way she 'works' her notes."

Favorite song to sing: "None. I like everything I do. I prefer sultry love songs."

On expanding her repertoire: "Somebody asks, do you know this song? I look it up and listen to it. If I like it, I add it."

Formal music training: "My mother taught me piano. I played clarinet in the marching band. I can read music and play a song, but not in a room where anyone else can hear me."

Community involvement: Board of directors, Dane County Rape Crisis Center; Member, Madison CitiARTS Commission, Madison's Affirmative Action Commission, Madison's Alcohol Licensing and Review Commission.

On Madison: "This is as big a city as I need. I love to visit big cities, but they're just too much. This is home. Even if I had been 'discovered,' this is where I would be."

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