RONNIE WELLS HAS PASSED. When the music programs in public schools began dwindling -- and as D.C.'s great jazz musicians found fewer and fewer venues in which to share their art with regular people -- singer Ronnie Wells founded the East Coast Jazz Festival, a singular event that drew together the greater area jazz community, from little children to wizened national treasures. Ms. Wells died on Wednesday of lung cancer.

I didn't know Ronnie Wells as a singer though, by all accounts, she was wonderful, both as a vocalist and an educator. I simply knew her as the force behind that magnificent festival, which -- free of charge and absent of auditions -- brought me into workshops with some of the nation's great jazz musicians, and brought new people into my life.

The East Coast Festival operated on many different levels, and was a place where musicians came both to teach and renew their relationships within the community. In placing the emphasis on education, Wells was hoping to see the music live to future generations. But the best part was class barriers the festival kicked away. Kids from D.C.'s toughest neighborhoods jammed with youngsters from Maryland's toniest, and the competition was in the cutting contests -- not over who had the priciest shoes.

This year's festival, held since 1992 over Presidents' Day weekend, was cancelled, on account of Ms. Wells's illness. Ronnie Wells's husband, pianist Ron Elliston, has said he doubts the festival will continue without her. If that's true, the nation will have lost one of the few truely classless venues for the nurturing of jazz. Without opportunities like this, America's greatest music risks becoming fossilized in the halls of the academe, by those who can afford the tuition.

--Adele M. Stan

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