Unsung Valentine heroines: Have You Met Ms. Jones?

Posted on Posted in Richmond Jazz Stories

So why’s it matter that some jazz musician or other has historical connections to Virginia? On a cosmic scale, it doesn’t. But we usually approach beautiful surprises by following a thread of circumstances, not by seeking everything-all-at-the-same-time. The Richmond Jazz Society’s Virginia jazz history exhibition at the Valentine Museum is just a way in. A path to, say, Salena Jones. Never heard of her, right?

Exhibition curator B.J. Brown is explaining something to the Valentine’s director, Bill Martin, as they enter the room. Everything’s okay, her tone of voice indicates, but some particular thing’s not quite working. “Salena” is mentioned.

Have you met Ms. Jones? She was born Joan Shaw in Newport News in the ’30s “She left Virginia to go to New York, sang at The Apollo, everyone loved her, loved her!” Brown tells me.

The vocalist’s website, which doesn’t lack for confidence, carries the story along: “Glamorous and beautiful, with her distinctive voice and relaxed style, by then she had met and sung with an array of great jazz names.” Photos show her with Betty Carter, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Vic Damone, Lena Horne.

“That was in the ’50s,” Brown said. “In the ’60s she had her own bands, and she was traveling, but she was having a tough time booking the bands. And she wanted to do something different, something meaningful.” She was also feeling increasingly concerned about American racism.

So she bought a one-way ticket to Madrid, Spain, and she’s never been back. She was booked there, right away, for a long gig with Dexter Gordon and made a fine success. But she removed to London in 1965, changed her name to Salena Jones, appeared for a record seven weeks at the topmost jazz venue, Ronnie Scott’s. She eventually opened her own club there.

Now in her 80s, with a big-enough voice that’s in splendid form, she is frequently booked in the best London jazz clubs and performs annually in Japan. She’s made more than 70 trips there in 40 years, and has also appeared in Israel several times. She has recorded more than 40 albums. And she reminds me of Mary Stallings, another octogenarian whose phrasing and ability to hold on to a fine long note snap your ears into focus. Some jazz people last forever; may it be so.

“Salena Jones has sold 500,000 albums worldwide, and nobody here knows who she is,” Brown sums up. That conversation with Martin a few minutes before was about a quest: “I’ve been working really hard, trying to raise the funds to bring her back to Richmond one more time, to perform. It’s not looking good, but I’m not giving up.”

Salena Jones is a terrific encounter. Brown had never heard of her until the research for the exhibition was coming together. I had never heard of her until I visited there. That’s why the local connection matters. What, you haven’t been yet?

Next up: the voice of the Smithsonian, on the Valentine exhibition’s broader significance.