Sunny Wilkinson wraps up DCCA 2021-2022 Coffee House Series


By Tammy Watts

ARCANUM — The incomparable Sunny Wilkinson, and her husband/accompanist Ron Newman, treated the audience filling Arcanum Wayne Trail Historical Society to an evening of jazz music on April 21. The duo’s performance closed out the Darke County Center for the Arts (DCCA) 2021-2022 Coffee House series.

The former saloon and hotel, now housing the Historical Society, was built by the Deitrich family in 1894. Featuring a research library and displays, the Society offers house tours, and hosts special programs and events. Volunteers provided refreshments: lemon bars, mini-eclairs, wine, and coffee with Kahlua, for the special occasion.

Before the music began, Wilkinson expressed her appreciation for the spring weather. “Driving down here was like a dream come true,” she said. “Not that living in East Lansing, Mich., is a bad thing; it’s just a gray thing right now.”

Wilkinson opened with “Old Fashioned,” during which a cell phone rang. Not missing a beat, she mimicked the ringtone, incorporating it into the number. She reminded the audience that jazz was all about improvisation, and applause at any time was welcome.

Wilkinson continued with “It Might As Well Be Spring,” and “Young and Foolish.” She and Newman performed several swing numbers, particularly pleasing to the audience. She sang lilting scat riffs, growling, earthy tones, and high, clear notes which hung in the air even after the accompanying keyboard subsided.

Wilkinson included classics such as Sarah Vaughan’s “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” to seldom-heard songs like “Soft Strum Blues,” a tribute to Al Jarreau, who had performed the number live, but never recorded it.

The intimate venue gave concert-goers the opportunity to engage in conversation with Wilkinson and Newman, and to ask questions. Understanding more about jazz music, its evolution, and how it is performed, enhanced the audience’s enjoyment of the concert.

Newman, who holds a PhD. in Music Theory, and has been on Michigan State University’s faculty since 1980, explained that there are two universal components of jazz: phrasing/articulation, and jazz chords, some of which are comprised of up to seven notes.

The duo, who will be celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary this year, revealed there is much more to improvisation than “making it up as one goes along.” Newman explained that they always stay true to a melody, but just as there are many tones in which a sentence can be spoken, there are numerous ways to play chords: higher, lower, or different styles. “We’re listening to each other very intently up here,” he stated.

Wilkinson has been performing since she graduated from high school, and had a studio career in Los Angeles. She sang on the theme song for the popular TV show, Saved By the Bell.

“I put two kids through college with that,” she laughed.

The concert ended with “Old Devil Moon,” from the musical Finian’s Rainbow.

“This has been delightful, and nourishment for our souls. You have such a wonderful community,” Wilkinson said. The audience made it clear they were glad to have Sunny Wilkinson and Ron Newman as part of the community for the evening, with heartfelt applause and a standing ovation.

Daily Advocate reporter Tammy Watts can be reached at [email protected].

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