She's all about style: Jan Wheaton is Madison's first lady of jazz

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By Neil Bartlett for 50 Plus Lifestyle
March, 2007
With her strong, beautiful voice, abundant talent and commitment to her music, you might call Jan Wheaton Madison's firsts lady of jazz. She's been performing locally since arriving here in 1964. The Kansas-born songstress sings both in public and for private gigs.

She was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Madison Area Music Awards in 2005. "Jan is a real original," says Ben Sidran, longtime Madison jazz great. "She learned to sing jazz the old-fashioned way – 'from the nub,' as Dizzy Gillespie would say. She's all about style."

Wheaton's always been in firm control of her jazz career, not the other way around. She performed on the side while working for 35 years at the University of Wisconsin in various capacities, including assistant dean of students and director of the Campus Assistance and Visitor Center.

"My music allowed me to stay at the university all that time without hurting somebody," Wheaton jokes. "I could have a rough day and I might have a rehearsal or gig, and let the rest of it go, so when I went back the next day or the next Monday, I'd let go of that frustration or anger or the annoyance. My music has always been my stress reliever."

Since retiring from the UW, Wheaton has more opportunity to sing – but her music doesn't consume her whole existence. A typical week might find her performing a couple of times on the weekend. "I want it to be fun," she says.

Strong musical roots
Wheaton comes from a musical family. She grew up in Cherryvale, Kansas, in the southeast corner of the state, a quiet community. If you listen, you can still hear her Kansas accent.

Her mom, Bernice Roberson Wheaton, was a musician. "She had a chance to attend Julliard, but instead married my dad," Wheaton says. "She was the consummate musician. "Bernice and Jan's dad, a signer, moonlighted in local area clubs to earn extra money for the family.

Wheaton's talent was noted early on, when she sang in front of a statewide Future Homemakers of America meeting. Accompanied by her mom, she sang a soft rock number. The crowd loved it and demanded an encore.

"I thought, 'This is kind of cool,'" says Wheaton. "I got bitten and wanted to perform – to know that somebody appreciated what i was doing."

When she went to Kansas University, Wheaton ran into a jazz trio at a local tavern performing music similar to that played at home. At the time, Wheaton, like millions of other kids, was into groups like Buddy Holly, Elvis and Little Richard.

But she found herself going back to the music she grew up with, "I knew jazz, because I grew up hearing my parents rehearse," Wheaton says. "Even though I felt a little like a prisoner, I knew it and I knew how to perform it. This trio was playing all the tunes I knew. "The rest, as the clichι says, is history.

Coming to Madison
Wheaton graduated with a degree in bacteriology from KU. She didn't plan to come to Madison, but she found out about an opening at the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene. "All I knew about Madison was that it was cold," she laughs.

Forty years later, she likes Madison just fine. "It's just big enough so I have access to a lot of good stuff," she says, "but it's small enough that I don't have the same fears and traumas I might experience in Los Angeles or Chicago – but I can get to those places, and then come back here."

"I like the fact that the University of Wisconsin is here," says Wheaton. "The level of intelligence of people here has always been an attraction to me. I don't like being around idiots – very bright people can sometimes be that way – but generally, people here are well-educated and not real rigid. adison is pretty open to people, regardless of who they might be."

It's the music
Wheaton uses her strong voice to sing a variety of tunes – everything from the Beatles to Billie Holliday to Duke Ellington. What's the thread?

It's the music – the songs themselves," Wheaton says. "I have to like them and I have to believe them, or I can't do it." Her Musical idol is Nancy Wilson. "My mom taught me how to carry a tune, but Nancy taught me to sing and how to put over a song. My voice is similar to hers."

She also knows how to gear her song toward the audience. "If it's a crowd in their 30s, I'll sing more current songs, because I assume they've heard them at some point in their lives," she explains. "But my voice oesn't accommodate every song out there."

"Most of my songs are about love and being broken," Wheaton continues. "From Nancy, I learned that you've got to get inside it.

Lots of musical talent here
Wheaton wishes there were more places for local musicians to perform. "Madison is a hidden treasure," she says. "there are many fine musicians here – people with an enormous amount of talent – but there's almost no place for us to work. It's sad, but a lot of young people wind up leaving the area because they don't feel like there's room to grow."

She'd like to see health insurance change so musicians can afford coverage, citing several benefits she's played at recently for local performers who don't have coverage.

Look for Wheaton to continue to perform at local venues. "Jan is a good example of the fact that jazz is not a kind of music but an approach to music, to life," says Sidran. "she swings."

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