September 15, 1938 - February 27, 2021
Born in Washington, D.C., Wally Jones grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. He attended Loyola Academy in Chicago before receiving his bachelor's in communication arts at Notre Dame in Indiana. Drafted into the Army in 1961, he served in Kansas and Goppingen, Germany. Long a jazz aficionado, in Europe he came to love classical music, especially opera and symphonies of the late Romantics. After two years as an advertising executive in New York, he realized music was "more his way of life," and pursued it professionally until he retired five decades later.
Wally began playing piano at six—his life forever changed when he discovered at ten he could play anything if he heard it once. In high school and college, strict music directors failed to contain his musical creativity. He rarely played music without adding embellishment or musical jokes. At Notre Dame, he toured as the soloist with the concert band as well as leading the dance band and jazz quintet, "The Lettermen." In the Army, he performed in the All-Army Entertainment Contest, played in the band of the 4th Armored Division, and taught prisoners music, earning praise for being "singularly successful as an instructor and a counselor."
He met Pru Smith on the Ides of March, 1968, at the Tin Lizzie in Midtown Manhattan. He asked her if she could sing and invited her to join him at the piano. Later they discovered they lived five blocks apart in Gramercy, which never happens when dating in New York City. Always a gentleman, upon encountering a flooded street on the way to a show, Wally took off his shoes and socks, handed them to Pru, and carried her across. They married in Reno in 1969, had two children in the early 1970s, and celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 2019. They quickly became involved in politics and causes in Northern Nevada, and co-hosted a noted annual Labor Day party with their neighbor the artist Nancy Peppin. Wally remained devoted to Pru to the end of his life. The last song he ever played on his parlor grand was their song, "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face."
Beginning with clubs in the Catskills, he played piano professionally in venues from Australia to British Columbia to the Caribbean, before coming to Reno at the invitation of the singer Dick Roman. Long a pivotal member of the music scene in Reno and South Lake Tahoe, and life-long member of Reno Musicians' Union, he played at Harold's Club Silver Dollar Room, the Top of the Hilton, as director of the house band at the MGM then Hilton, and at Eldorado's Roxy. As well as playing shows such as "Hello Hollywood, Hello," his bands supported stars from Sinatra to Charo. Asked about the name of his group, he said, "Call me anything you want—just call me." His capacious memory of popular music and show tunes from the 1920s to the 2000s delighted his fans. A letter to the newspaper noted, "Wally Jones and his trio reminded us of sitting in a Manhattan supper club, listening to the most glorious, sophisticated music anywhere." Jones sparkled as an accompanist; he used his prodigious musicality to make singers and instrumentalists shine. Late in life he loved accompanying his three granddaughters as they played cello and sang. He reveled in their shared love of musicals, animal shows, and ice cream.
Few things so pleased Wally as a bingo in Scrabble—he routinely made them—or displeased him as waiting for a green light. Like other Chicagoans, he waited decades for his Cubs to win the World Series. In a nod to his love of baseball, his business card noted he had been featured at "seventh inning stretches" in addition to the usual events like weddings, funerals, selected Wagnerian operas, and squash harvestings. A voracious reader of thrillers, tales of Watergate, and biographies, he adored walking great world cities, the symphonies of Mahler, opera, first-day covers, and postmarks, including one from St. Thomas, Nevada, now submerged under Lake Mead. From the late 1940s, he chronicled his travels in postcards to loved ones, his friends, and himself. For decades, he sailed a two-person boat at Donner Lake, where he ensured every new sailor experienced the joy of capsizing at least once.
His incisive wit he delivered deadpan. Anyone not listening carefully might miss a witticism and realize it only by the undulation of his moustache and a twinkle in an eye. He revealed his humor in letters to newspapers and more frequently in correspondence with friends and family. He used his command of English language, when asked, to copy-edit his son's books. A connoisseur of the typo, he especially enjoyed restaurant signs that advertised "fine dinning," supermarket bags advertising "The West's Riciest Rodeo," and a poster for Mahler's "Ressurection" [all sic].
The attentiveness he showed long-time fans in incorporating riffs of their favorite songs into whatever tune he happened to be playing, he expressed in remembering friends and family members' preferences in all things from tomatoes to parking spaces. Considerate, kind, and generous, Wally quietly took care of people. Sometimes this had comic consequences: he surprised Pru while she was at work by painting the ceiling of a bedroom using the same dark blue she had for the walls. He thought she hadn't finished it due to her petite height. The resulting bat cave had a good, brief, life as an expression of love and for the giggles.
Wally quit smoking the day his first child was born and thereafter only enjoyed an occasional beer. As President of the Peavine Elementary PTA, his fundraising effort dramatically improved the playground spaces—visible to this day. He threw himself into making the dreams of his children possible—computer camp, space camp, graduate school, softball, and theater. Attuned to his granddaughters, he'd often sit where he could keep an eye on all three. He was happy to be their straight man.
The ultimate accompanist, Wally met people where they were and helped them soar.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Pru, of Reno; his brother and sister-in-law, Philip and Elyette of Olympia, Washington; sister, Clara, of Novato, California; niece, Jennifer, of Tiburon, California; nieces-in-law, Jan and Lisa, of Reno; son Matthew, daughter-in-law Elizabeth, grandchildren, Sophie, Athena, Arete, of New York City. His darlin' daughter, Lindsay, passed away in 2017.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donating to the Met Orchestra Musicians, https://www.metorchestramusicians.org/
or the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra https://www.renophil.com/giving/
. A celebration of Wally's life will be organized in the near future.