Jeanne Jolly honed her vocal skills as a member of the inaugural edition of Western Carolina University’s Catamount Singers in the late 1990s, and the singer-songwriter will return to campus to perform with the student ensemble in a fundraising show sponsored by WCU’s Friends of the Arts this Friday (April 24.)
The show “All Night Long,” also featuring the 12-member student instrumental group Electric Soul, will begin at 8 p.m. at WCU’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. The performance will be preceded by the Friends’ silent auction that gets underway at 4:30 p.m., and the evening also will include an announcement of the winner of a raffle for a free trip for two to explore North Carolina. The show, auction and raffle are part of the Friends’ annual fundraiser to provide scholarships and arts programming for students in WCU’s College of Fine and Performing Arts.
A Raleigh native, Jolly enrolled at WCU as a music major in 1997 and joined the Catamount Singers when the group was organized a year later by Bruce Frazier, WCU’s Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Commercial and Electronic Music.
“One of my most special memories while singing under (Frazier’s) direction in the Catamount Singers was getting to sing his arrangement of ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’ in which he gave me the solo,” Jolly said. “It was the first time anyone had ever arranged a song specifically for my voice and key. Dr. Frazier also encouraged me to get in the recording studio and record a few jazz standards. That was another first for me, and I honestly haven’t been the same since. From that moment on, I was always looking for opportunities to be in the studio, whether I was singing lead, harmony or just being a fly on the wall.”
Jolly said the jazz recording led to another fond memory – a short-lived swing band that included her and some musicians from the School of Music. “We called the band Jeanne Jolly and the Green Giants and only played one show in the University Center. I wish we’d played more,” she said.
After her graduation from WCU in 2001, Jolly earned her master’s degree in vocal performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and then she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music career. Music critics took notice and the rave reviews started coming in when Jolly became the featured vocalist for Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Touring across North America, she had an opportunity to sing with world-renowned symphonies and perform at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Jolly came back to Cullowhee in 2007 to accept the WCU Alumni Association’s Young Alumnus Award and sing the Nation Anthem at the Homecoming football game, and she returned again in 2009 to help celebrate the life and career of Robert Holquist upon the WCU professor of music’s retirement. Holquist recruited Jolly to become a student in WCU’s School of Music, and he became her voice instructor, mentor and friend, she said. “Dr. Holquist truly cared about his students, musically and personally,” Jolly said. “His passion for getting the best sound he could out of me would shine through in every lesson. If I ever was over-thinking a song or my technique, he would simply exclaim, ‘Just sing!’ and that always seemed to do the trick.”
Jolly said the year 2009 also brought about big changes in her life, including her move from Los Angeles back to Raleigh and, a few months later, the passing of her mother. “Losing my mom to cancer and being back in North Carolina set me in a new direction,” she said. “Through the tragedy of losing her, I gained some pretty deep clarity in my life. I think of it as one of the many gifts she left me with. Life is too short to not give attention to all that you dream about.”
One thing that Jolly had dreamed about was to accompany herself on guitar and play original songs on stage. “Three weeks after my mom died, I started taking guitar lessons. Songwriting quickly became my release, my therapy, and now it has become one of my true joys,” she said.
Jolly wrote and released her song collection “Falling in Carolina” in 2010, which garnered praise for its honest lyrics and quality vocals. She went on a tour of the Pacific Northwest and played the main stage at a festival with Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and Billy Joe Shaver. Two years later, her full-length album “Angels” debuted in the top 15 on the iTunes Singer Songwriter chart and she toured all over the country with her band.
Over the years, critics have raved about Jolly’s soulful blend of pop and folk that refuses to be pigeon-holed in one genre of music. A reviewer for the Atlanta Music Guide said, “Imagine Joni Mitchell with Billie Holiday’s stylings.” The Boston Globe said Jolly is “one of contemporary music’s best-kept secrets.” Her next album, “A Place to Run,” will be released later this year. Jolly wrote all the songs on the album herself but one, which she co-wrote with her longtime friend and producer, Chris Boerner. The new album is “honest and soulful, with some Southern grit,” she said.
Jolly said she is excited to be returning to WCU for the Friends of the Arts show. “April 24 can’t come fast enough,” she said. “I’m counting the days and can’t wait to see the Catamount Singers and Electric Soul do their thing.” Frazier and his School of Music faculty colleague Jon Henson are directing the show, a celebration of chart-topping pop music, along with some standards by artist such as Aretha Franklin and Lionel Richie. Jolly and the student vocalists and musicians also will perform some of her original songs, including her composition “Round and Round Again” from her “Angels” album. “I’ve always wanted to hear a choir of angels in the background, and Dr. Frazier wrote an arrangement for the band and singers to play behind me. That’s a dream come true,” Jolly said.
Tickets for “All Night Long” are $15 for adults, $10 for WCU faculty and staff, and $5 for students. Tickets are available by calling the Bardo Arts Center box office at 828-227-2479 or by visiting the website bardoartscenter.wcu.edu.
More information about all facets of the benefit fundraiser are available at the Friends of the Arts website – foa.wcu.edu.