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In Memoriam: Jess Wells

In Memoriam: Jess Wells

1953 – 2010

by Jonathon Peterson, Eric “Rico” Meyer, Ed Geesman, David Kerr, and Hiram Harris

Originally published in American Lutherie #105, 2011

My dear friend Jess Wells died at home of cancer on December 13, 2010. Jess was a big-picture kind of guy, with a real awareness of the interconnectedness of things. He was a fine craftsman with expertise in, among other things, violins, lutes, viola da gambas, bamboo fly-fishing rods, custom interior woodworking, and pipe organ construction. Our conversations always branched to music, food, religion, art, history, politics, social responsibility, sustainability of resources, local agriculture, and other big and small topics. I visited with him at shows, in shops, at his home, and too many times in the hospital. He knew what was coming, and faced death with grace, humor, and dignity. Jess is one of my heros.

— Jonathon Peterson

Photo by Jonathon Peterson

Jess and I shared shop space several times in the ’80s. During one of those periods in the back room at Kerr's violin shop, I was trying to make an archtop guitar. The juxtaposition of our benches was a model of contrast: his meticulous and orderly, and mine, well, not so much. After listening to me curse and grouse and fix my own mistakes, he gave me the most left-handed compliment I’ve ever had. He said, “Rico, how the hell can you wind up with something so nice after screwing up so much along the way. It’s not fair.”

He also kind of half cajoled, half exampled me into giving up a traditional Thanksgiving Day to serve dinners and wash dishes at a homeless mission. I’ve been delivering Meals On Wheels for over fifteen years. Thanks Jess. I guess most of us are ultimately self-absorbed. Jess may have been the exception.

— Eric “Rico” Meyer

I remember Jess having a very strong sense of social awareness. Although he was a live-and-let-live sort of guy, he had no patience with somebody taking advantage of his fellow man. Definitely a child of the ’70s, with a healthy Oregonian essence. I enjoyed his upbeat attitude and was inspired by his positive nature. I will miss seeing him.

— Ed Geesman

I remember Jess having a mischievous side. You could tell when he was up to something when he all of a sudden had this Cheshire Cat grin, halfway between a seven-year-old boy’s glee and the devil. When we were apprentices I had spent nine months making my first violin and had just glued the top on with great satisfaction. The next day I came in and Jess had filled the insides with as many wood shavings as he could possibly fit through the f-holes. I was both despondent and furious. He spent the next three hours pulling them out with a pair of tweezers, all the while grinning from ear to ear!

— David Kerr

I first met Jess in 1975 when I came to Portland to apprentice for Paul Schuback. Jess and the other apprentices welcomed me and took me into their homes or apartments even though we were all strangers. Jess was one of the older apprentices, and he and Dave Kerr looked after the younger ones to make sure we understood how the program worked. Jess was married and in that first year he and Beth had their first child, Megan. Jess was the first person I knew near my age to become a father. After Megan’s arrival, Steve Moore renamed Jess “Dad” Wells. This nickname and Jess’ obvious joy at her arrival is what I remember most from those days.

Jess left the apprenticeship in 1976 to make viols on his own and work for Bob Lundberg. He had the highest respect for Bob and was proud to say that he was the only person to work full time with Bob in his shop. Jess told me that almost everything he knew about instrument making he learned from Bob.

In the early ’80s Jess also worked part time in Dave Kerr’s shop. He drove an old VW van. Megan would frequently accompany him at the shop and draw or play. One of her drawings became Kerr Violin Shop’s first t-shirt. It was a sketch of three people: Dave, Jess, and me.

Jess was a fine craftsman with an exacting eye and high standards. He never made much money on his viol work because he either didn’t charge enough, or he spent too much time trying to get them just right. I remember Dave telling him once that no matter what business Jess was in he would find a way to lose money. Jess liked to tell that story with a laugh and an acknowledgement that Dave was probably right.

He and Beth helped set up a soup kitchen at St. Francis church in southeast Portland. Giving back to the community and helping those less fortunate was a big part of Jess’ life. Jess was quite active in his church. Faith played a huge role in his life, and it was reflected in how he handled his terminal illness. He saw death as a transition to a new beginning and a way to get closer to God.

I spent a month with Jess last summer. It had been years since we had seen each other, but this was of no importance to Jess. He was friendly and open to all no matter how long he had known them or their station in life. I never saw him down or depressed, even though at times he was in a lot of pain. He could have easily, understandably, felt sorry for himself, but he did not. His main concern as always was for his family.

Jess was decent, kind, generous, warm, and a true man of all seasons. I remember how he tilted his head just so when he was engaged in conversation, and the twinkle in his eye when an idea particularly struck him. He had a ready smile and made you feel wanted. He loved life fully and deeply, and embraced death with the same intensity. Above all, I will remember him as a family man with a strong faith in God and a true love for his fellow man. Rest in peace, Jess.

— Hiram Harris