A jazzy love story

By Lawrence Cosentino

Tribute to married jazz team Sunny Wilkinson and Ron Newman strikes a major chord

She’s a jazz singer with a lemony voice and feathersharp control. He’s a composer, pianist and professor of music theory at Michigan State University.

She struts to the sparkling sobriquet “Sunny”; he rolls with the rumpled rubric of “Ron.”

Sunny Wilkinson and Ron Newman, both 61, are among the state’s top musicians and teachers. Their music, like wine and bread, nourishes the spirit when taken separately or together. This Sunday, it´s a package deal. After countless gigs in almost as many formats, both will receive the fourth annual Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan tribute.

The old standard “You and the Night and the Music” could have been written about the night they were smitten.“We hit it off so well it was kind of scary,” Newman recalled. They’ve been married 22 years.

In 1991, Newman was head of jazz studies at MSU and Wilkinson was a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles music scene. Mutual friends invited them to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Washington, where they were attending a jazz educators convention.

Newman was not feeling sociable that day, but when he heard Wilkinson would be there, he agreed to go. Two years earlier, he heard her sing at a California gig and never forgot it.

After two glasses of wine, Newman started truth telling.

“There´s only one person at this table worth looking at,” he declared. An obnoxious floral centerpiece stood on the table between Wilkinson and himself. She heard the comment and moved the vase aside, giving him an eyeful of Sunny, with no UV protection.

“Now I´m in trouble,” he thought to himself. After a riotous dinner full of dirty jokes, the mood changed. The dinner party wandered through the capital and spent a hushed half hour at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (Congress had authorized the Gulf War that very day.) When the group broke up, Wilkinson further endeared herself to Newman by suggesting they go to a club to hear Kenny Werner, one of his favorite jazz pianists.

When they reached the hotel at 5 a.m., neither of them wanted the night to end. Newman found himself saying, “Let’s go find a piano.”

They roamed the hotel and found an empty ballroom. He sat down at the piano and started playing Johnny Mandel’s “Close Enough For Love.” She sat next to him and sang the verse, “You and I, an unmatched pair ... .”

“We fell madly in love,” Newman recalled. They converged on jazz — and each other — along different paths. Sarah Wilkinson was born in Minnesota, but her family moved to East Whittier, Calif., before she reached her teens.

She got her nickname from a church lady in East Whittier, also called Sunny, who thought it suited her. (She tried to give herself the nickname “Scout” after the tomboy heroine of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” but it didn´t stick.)

She played trombone as a youngster, acquiring a fine ear for intonation that served her well as a vocalist. She played in an all-state California band under Carmen Dragon, the legendary bandleader and composer who wrote the score for the 1956 classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

After living in Arizona for several years, singing in a folk-rock band patterned after Blood, Sweat and Tears, she returned to California and plunged into the cutthroat L.A. music world. She beat out hundreds of competitors to snag a gig at Disneyland for $500 a week plus $60 per rehearsal in 1977. Jazz wasn´t part of her world yet. She was more into rock and folk artists like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Janis Joplin.

But the musical hotbed of L.A. helped her “grow exponentially.” She sang opera (Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”) and musical theater (“Once Upon a Mattress”) and became one of TV’s “Solid Gold” singers. On off-nights, she sang at an improv club between acts like Jay Leno, David Letterman and Andy Kaufman. She gravitated to jazz naturally.

“I have a clean, pure voice, not a Janis Joplin type voice,” she said. “When I sat in with a rock band, nothing would happen. When I sat in at a jazz club, I´d get the gig. It was a path of least resistance, in a way.” Her bandmates, usually horn players, urged her to study up on Miles Davis and other jazz greats. She eagerly sought out records at the library.

Newman discovered jazz sooner than his future wife did. Growing up in Howell, he started messing around on the family piano as a youngster, improvising and composing to boot. He played well enough on clarinet to be offered a scholarship at University of Michigan, but had broader interests and chose not to go.

Newman’s junior high band director steered him from light jazz to straight-up piano greats like Bill Evans. He took a detour to North Texas University for a degree in music education thinking he would be a bandleader, but wound up back at MSU to get his doctorate in composition.

Jazz infiltrated Newman’s life again when Ken Bloomquist, director of bands at MSU, took over the music school in 1978 and started a jazz program. Newman took over the jazz band, started MSU’s jazz program and headed it up for 15 years. When a music theory position opened up in 1993, Newman was ready for a change. Andrew Speight took over jazz studies in 1993 and Rodney Whitaker took over in 2000.

Newman didn’t want to move away from his professor gig or his son, Kevin, from a previous marriage, so Wilkinson made the move from California to Okemos in January 1993. (They were married in 1992, but she had loose ends to wrap up.) The day she arrived, Newman took her to Burlington Coat Factory for a proper down coat. The cloudy weather and the culture shock took some getting used to. “It caught me off guard for a couple of years,” she said.

Wilkinson, who taught jazz at MSU for 15 years, is an artist in residence at Hillsdale College, gives private lessons and will soon lead a jazz workshop in Italy.

Besides his professor gig at MSU, Newman is in his fourth year leading the resurgent Lansing Symphony Big Band, with another concert due in March featuring Mike Williams, lead trumpeter for the Count Basie Band.

Meanwhile, they continue to explore music together with their composer son, savoring new sounds like last December’s thrumming avant-garde percussion concert at the ultramodern Broad Art Museum.

“That was one of the most lovely, inspiring experiences I´ve had in 20 years,” Wilkinson said. “I loved it — these young people, in that environment.”

“When something middle-of-the-road comes on, she loses interest,” Newman said proudly. “Once again — I married the right woman.”

Jazz Association of Mid-Michigan’s Tribute to Sunny Wilkinson and Ron

Newman 3-6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9 The Avenue Café 2021 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing $25/$15 students jazzjamm.com