This reluctant diva is a shy violet offstage
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
in ANEW Magazine [Brava Magazine as of 2006]
Jan Wheaton’s cat is hiding behind the curtain.
All afternoon he’s been out of sight behind the curtain by the sliding glass door leading to the backyard. When I ask about him, Wheaton rises lightly from her forest-green, leather armchair – at the start of my visit, she had melted into it luxuriantly, resting her bare feet on a matching Ottoman – and calls for the cat, a golden-eyed Persian Himalayan.
“Fuji!” Wheaton pads across the room and pulls aside the drape. Fuji lies along the carpet, absolutely unruffled by the reveal. But I am ruffled. Transfixed. It’s not just the ethereal cloud of blizzard-white fur, or the energized tranquility of his eyes. Such explosive glamour, so modestly sequestered – it’s startling.
In a way, Fuji is an apt mirror for Wheaton, a prominent local jazz song stylist who is quick to describe herself as “very reserved.” A bacteriologist by training – she entered the sciences hoping “not to be bothered with people ... so I could be in my little lab room with my lab coat and Petrie dish” – Wheaton is nothing short of a diva, in the truest and best sense of the word. Modest and retiring offstage or not, no lesser label would be sufficient for her star combination of beguiling onstage charisma, vocal talent, inventive approach and musical mastery.
She might spend her days at home – and preferably alone – listening to jazz tunes on her stereo, or on the links practicing her golf swing (she got a hole-in-one at Glenway a while back), but nights and weekends she’s out on the town, drawing cheers from enthusiastic audiences who’ve come to hear the sweet tones of her uniquely high-octane, velvety renditions.
“There are in fact two of me living in this body,” she offers bluntly, but with a wink. “One is this educated university administrator. The other is this bitch who like to hang out in bars.”
On the Madison music scene for 40 years, it seems that only recently Wheaton has been getting the level of recognition she’s earned. Her first CD, Love’s 3 Faces, released in 2001, went into 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. And this year Wheaton became the second-ever recipient of the MAMA’s Michael St. John Lifetime Achievement Award.
Rick Tvedt, executive director of the MAMAs, says that among the award organizers, support of the choice of Wheaton for the lifetime award was “pretty much unanimous right off the bat.” 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 on, he says, because of the way Wheaton’s career has exploded in recent years, including a second CD release this fall, Expressions of Love.
“I’m really happy to see Jan getting some of the attention she so rightfully deserves,” says Tvedt. “She’s very humble and very vibrant. I get a really good buzz when I talk to her.”
Madison’s 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 Madison’s eyes to the jazz scene,” he says. “I asked her to perform at my inauguration party, and she was incredibly well-received.” Cieslewicz even appointed Wheaton to the city’s Alcohol License and Review Commission (the ALRC) because, he says, “she is so well-respected, both within and beyond the local music scene. I felt she would bring a musician’s sensibility to the ALRC’s discussions, and that’s exactly what she’s done.”
Born in 1943 in Cherryvale, Kansas, a predominantly white, “tiny little town of 4,500 people” near the borders to Oklahoma and Missouri, Wheaton grew up on her family’s cattle ranch. She remembers well the discrimination of those days. In the early 1950s, when the town planned a new municipal swimming pool for whites only, Wheaton’s family successfully “raised a bunch of hell,” she remembers. “They were using our tax money.” Besides, she says, “school was integrated. There weren’t enough of us to segregate.”
Getting out of Kansas was top priority, so the young Wheaton followed her parents’ advice to get a college education, studying science at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Wheaton's mother was a church pianist and organist who taught her daughter to play the piano; her father "thought he could sing," she says, rolling her eyes heavenward. Growing up, Wheaton had sung for her classmates at assemblies and traveled the tri-state region in her church choir. But music as a profession? "They just about killed me when I told them," says Wheaton, with a laugh. Although "they were always pushing me to sing, every time someone came to visit," Wheaton's parents didn't anticipate that their daughter would make music a career. And neither did she.
When she first left for college, Wheaton felt relieved: “OK, I never want to sing another note.” But in her first week away at college, fate got the better of her. Out 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. So why sing them? "I knew them." And Wheaton has been singing those songs ever since.
After earning an M.S. in bacteriology, Wheaton embarked on a university career that was to span 35 years. She began at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, then soon went on to the UW-Madison Department of Bacteriology for the next 13 years. From there she moved to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, where she worked as a teaching specialist and the coordinator for minority and disadvantaged students. For 10 years, she served as an assistant dean for the college before becoming Associate Athletic Director for Student Services. Through much of the 1990s and until retiring from the UW in 2001, Wheaton was 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. It’s 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 don’t think there’s any job that you just absolutely love every day. Or if there is, I wasn’t 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.
“I kind of muscled my way in,” says Wheaton of breaking into the early 1960s’ Madison music scene. “Subtlety is my mantra. If somebody I liked was playing, I would show up and ask to sing.” For years, she wasn’t taken seriously, she felt. “It’s hard, really, being a girl singer. The other musicians – the men – didn’t consider me a fellow musician. They’d just put me on near the beginning for diversity.
“That's how I was used. The audience would get restless, start talking, waiting for the real act.” She had a different opinion of her role on the music stage. “This is my instrument," she says, and points to her throat. "I don't blow a horn or bang on a drum."
And she began getting phone calls. People who’d heard her sing wanted her to play as a featured artist at parties, cocktail hours, festivals 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 backing combo to fit the venue.
The Third Act
Since retiring, Wheaton has had more time to spend on her musical development. “It’s still the same old music that I’m exploring, but I haven’t done some of these songs in this way,” she explains. “I take more chances. I’m testing my range.”
Pianist Matan Rubinstein, a Ph.D. candidate in music composition at the UW, has Wheaton’s regular accompanist for the past few years. “She’s wonderful to work with. Very tough and strong,” he says. “She’s brilliantly musical. She has some of the most interesting phrasing I’ve ever heard in my life in jazz. Ella Fitzgerald or Sara Vaughn – she’s up there with them. She’s a real musician.”
For her part, Wheaton says, “I feel comfortable scatting with Matan. Other musicians don't always trust that you can do it." ("Scatting," or improvisational singing using nonsense syllables, is the jazz singer's version of an instrumental solo.) "If I do get out there and can't get back, he'll help me back. He gives me that space. What's happened is, I listen differently now."
Their chemistry on Expressions of Love is dynamite. Venerable standards receive novel approaches. On the shimmering first cut, “It’s Almost Like Being In Love,” Wheaton springs effortlessly against Rubinstein’s nimble piano into a breathtaking scat solo. “It’s about being excited. ‘What a day’! ‘What a rare mood’! But people don’t sing it that way,” says Wheaton. To demonstrate, she mimics a more pedestrian interpretation, and I can practically hear a metronome clanging: "What a da-ay-ay this has been...what a ra-a-are mood I’m in..."
“Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is similarly refreshing: it’s carefree, defiant, sparkling – not the usual anguished victim’s confessional. And her voice has somehow become more youthful over the past five years.
“Some of these songs, they tell you how to sing them,” she says, explaining how she arrives at her innovative, fully realized interpretations. “Like in ‘Don’t Explain’: ‘Skip that lipstick. Don’t explain...Right or wrong don’t matter...’ ” she says, quoting from the Billie Holiday tearjerker. “That’s pathetic!” I consider myself a strong woman, and here I am singing these weepy songs." I ask how she does it, and how does she pull it off with such conviction? "I'm an actress," she states, plainly.
Another factor, one she would be too modest to claim herself, is what Rubinstein calls her “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 – we take the jazz approach. There are moments when we have the same thoughts, and take the plunge into the same direction, take the same risk. It’s a great treat.”
So what’s next for Jan Wheaton? “I want to play as much golf as I can. It’s 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, there’s the musical goal of “continuing to live this life of music for as long as I’m able.”
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.”