Sunny Wilkinson was out of a job this spring when
Michigan State University dropped its vocal jazz program, of which she
was the founder and professor.
The School of Music program was in its seventh year; Wilkinson had taught at MSU for 17 years.
But on Friday she will return to campus with her first
love — performing — when she sings with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra
as part of the LSO pops series.
“There are five new premier arrangements,” she said. “The
LSO is going to eat them up. It’s a potpourri of tunes from American
Wilkinson will be joined by her jazz trio: Ron Newman,
pianist (and Wilkinson’s husband); Ed Fedewa, bass; Larry Ochiltree,
“We’ve been playing together for about 10 years,” she
said. “We have a really nice vibe together. And my husband is a
wonderful jazz player.”
Being on stage is a dream Wilkinson’s explored her entire
life. “I remember being 5 years old, making up songs at the jungle gym
and singing them at the top of my lungs,” she recalled. “I knew that’s
what I wanted to do.”
From then on, “I was always performing, no matter what
medium,” she said. “I sang in operas, musical theater, rock ‘n’ roll
bands — I was a natural performer.”
It wasn’t until she went to Arizona State University, however, that she discovered jazz.
“I was a poor college student,” she said, “so I would go
around to garage sales and buy worn-out records for a quarter. I would
try to steal licks from Ella Fitzgerald. I just wanted to be good
enough that musicians would want to play with me.
“Once you realize you want to spend your life in it, you
develop big goals and small goals. I just wanted to record, travel and
play bigger venues to get my music out to more people.”
She now has four records under her belt, most recently,
“A Gentle Time: When Sunny Meets Tom,” a collaboration with her
longtime friend, pianist Tom Garvin.
Wilkinson has been teaching voice since she was 21. Today, students come to her studio in Okemos from across the country.
“I’ve had students come from California, Chicago,
Massachusetts: I have something they want,” she said. “I’m really good
at balancing out voices and getting the voice smooth from top to
bottom. I know how to bring out the best in their voice.”
Since she was laid off, Wilkinson has taught more private lessons. She also hired a new manager.
“My manager, Sharen Lange, is as sharp
and fantastic as could be,” she said. “We’re making a wonderful team.
I’ve been taking advantage of having more time and freedom to sing and
Next, she’ll travel to Boston, New Orleans and Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.
However, hitting it big hasn’t really altered the dream she’s had since her jungle gym days.
“I just want to keep making beautiful
music that touches people and writing new inspiring music,” Wilkinson
said. “I want to get it out to as many people as possible.”
Sunny Wilkinson & her Jazz Trio with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21