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Newsletter 11/20: From Charlotte’s youth orchestras to the world’s biggest stages
Plus: Pittenger Quail Hollow mansion sold in most expensive Mecklenburg home sale of 2023; New CMS graduation dates; Chuck E. Cheese axes band; Download useful teen lingo for Thanksgiving
Good morning! Today is Monday, November 20, 2023. You’re reading The Charlotte Ledger, an e-newsletter with local business-y news and insights for Charlotte, N.C.
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Today’s Charlotte Ledger is sponsored by T.R. Lawing Realty:
Charlotte native violinist Lady Jess has toured with A-listers and currently plays on Broadway. This week, she’s back in her hometown with a special gig – playing in the pit of ‘Company’ at the Belk Theater.
Lady Jess grew up in Charlotte’s youth music scene and now plays in front of international audiences and alongside some of the biggest stars in music. (Photo by Nilaya Sabnis)
by Cristina Bolling
Jessica McJunkins was a 9-year-old attending Elizabeth Elementary when she saw a boy who had brown skin like hers playing the violin on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and she said to her mom: “I’m better than him.”
Her mom’s reply: “Let’s get some lessons.”
Fast-forward 28 years, and McJunkins, who now goes by the name Lady Jess, is a professional violinist with a spellbinding list of musical accomplishments: tours and collaborations with huge acts like Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill and The Roots; soloist performances with major orchestras around the globe; a current role in the pit orchestra of “Sweeney Todd” on Broadway — and she’s becoming known as a force in pushing for equity in the world of freelance musicians.
Music is in her family. Sibling Kelsey Lu is a cellist and singer-songwriter who’s been featured in national publications. Her parents, Jerry and Ann Louise, are both musicians in addition to having other careers.
This week, Lady Jess, 37, brings her talent back to her hometown, where she’ll be playing in the pit for “Company” on stage at the Belk Theater Nov. 21-26.
In advance of her visit, she spoke by Zoom from her home in New York City with the Ledger’s Cristina Bolling about what it was like growing up in Charlotte’s youth music scene, the challenges of breaking into the world of professional music and her work in opening doors for musicians of diverse backgrounds to have thriving freelance music careers.
The conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. I read somewhere that you learned about the violin by watching “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and that was an inspiration for you.
Yeah, that’s how we came to the violin. There was a Black kid playing violin on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and I told my mom I was better than him. And she goes, “Let’s get some lessons.” So we went to the old Music Maker store on Kings Drive, and that’s where I rented my first violin.
My first few lessons were with a teacher whose approach just didn’t work for me. So my mom, to her credit, listened to me and we were given a recommendation to have a lesson with Sarah Slechta [a longtime instructor with Community School of the Arts — now Arts+] — rest in peace, she is no longer with us. She was a powerhouse and is just a legend for her teaching. Sarah was such a dynamic person. She was terrifying to me. And so I loved her. [Laughs]
Q: As you got older and started playing in competitive orchestras like the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra, did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?
I grew up in that world very heavily. And my parents liked it but were never like, “You should do this.” There wasn’t a big, strong push. It was hypnotic, the idea of an orchestra to me. It was super-important for me growing up, because it was also one of the few places that I was socializing with other people my age outside of school. So it was a core experience in a lot of ways.
I thought I wanted to be a writer until the summer before my senior year of high school. That’s when I did the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. And I don’t know if it’s still this way, but back then, they just treated you like you were a professional musician. It was a lot of work. You either hated it or loved it, and I just loved it. So it just kind of changed my whole career path.
Jessica McJunkins, now known as Lady Jess, graduated from Providence High School and played in a variety of local and regional youth orchestras during high school. (Photo courtesy of the McJunkins family)
Q: You wound up at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for college. How did that set you up for a career that would take you in so many directions?
I took auditions [for colleges] in the Northeast, and I had no idea what I was really walking into — I wasn’t told, I wasn’t informed. So when I ended up at North Carolina School of the Arts, I was resistant at first, because I felt like these were backup options to go to school in the same state. But it ended up being perfect for me.
I think it’s still the only publicly funded conservatory in the nation. Anybody who works in academia, I’m sure, could break it down with charts and graphs, but the way it translates to me is that we missed the part of the development game that includes being super-branded, and having to maintain this idea of an institute. It was just a free place.
Many of the people that I went to school with shared a socio-economic experience with me. And the school itself, because it’s five different schools on one campus, it’s so small. It’s an intimate space. It was only as competitive as we let it be.
Q: What was your first stop after college? Did you go straight to New York?
The path at that point for anyone with a performance degree was to go straight into grad school. But I was self-funded, so I couldn’t even conceive of that. I ended up freelancing in Winston-Salem and Charlotte and playing with the symphony.
The irony is that my first gig was with the Charlotte Symphony, and I got it because Ernest Pereira [a violinist in the Charlotte Symphony who had directed McJunkins in the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra] had recommended me to the personnel manager because he’d been following me. It was very full-circle.
Q: How did you break out of Charlotte?
When I was playing for [the Charlotte Symphony], I was considered a substitute musician. You’re getting paid at an hourly rate without benefits, but it also means you have the flexibility to do things like play for shows that come through and hire local musicians. That’s how I got into the Broadway scene.
“South Pacific” was my first show. There was one violinist who traveled with that show, and they would add three violins and a viola and a cello in each city. I wanted to play Broadway so badly that I learned the entire book [of music] like it was the world’s most important audition. The conductor noticed me, and that was how I made my first connection.
Q: When I look at your list of accomplishments, it is dizzying. Tours with A-list musicians, Broadway shows, incredible orchestras and world-renowned ensembles. What would you say are the highlights, if you were going to write an article about yourself?
Pick any memory of Beyoncé anything, and that’s pretty high up there. [She traveled with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II World Tour and played with Beyoncé at Coachella.] Another highlight is the “Lion King” score, because that was my first film score, recorded in Los Angeles. [The “Lion King” soundtrack was re-recorded in 2019 for the live-action movie.] We were on the soundstage where they recorded “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and the soundstage itself has all this good juju and energy. I’m playing next to a Black player who also recorded on the original “Lion King” score.
In June, I was in the orchestra for the Juneteenth concert on CNN. We performed with Earth, Wind and Fire, and they’re one of my favorite bands. So at that point, my body left the gig, and it was, like, floating above.
Q: You’ve done a lot of work around equity for musicians, and are trying to have what you do not only be for people who came up through those conservatories in the Northeast. Why is that so important to you?
I know so many musicians who have been looked over because they haven’t fit a certain paradigm, without even having been heard. I know too much about how all this goes down, and so what is the point of evolving and making connections and having power if you can’t advocate for somebody like me, who may have talent and ideas and honestly feel like there’s no space for them, because the person next to them doesn’t know what it’s like to have to work through school? I’ve had to be the first in too many situations, and I feel like it’s my job to make it easier for the person coming after me.
➡️ Fun-fact: Lady Jess is the daughter of Jerry McJunkins, a Charlotte courtroom sketch artist who was profiled in The Ledger last April.
Today’s supporting sponsor is Landon A. Dunn, attorney-at-law in Matthews:
New neighbor in Quail Hollow: Sonic Automotive CEO buys mansion of former Rep. Robert Pittenger for $7.6M; year’s most expensive home sale
Former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and his wife have sold their mansion on Quail Hollow Club’s golf course to a company controlled by Sonic Automotive CEO David Smith, according to real estate records filed on Friday.
The sales price of the 11,500 s.f. estate — which has 5 bedrooms, 6 full bathrooms and 3 half-baths — was $7.6M, which is one of the most expensive home sales in Mecklenburg County history and apparently the highest of this year.
The real estate listing by Sotheby’s International Realty — which includes dozens of photos and a drone video set to soothing music — called it a “prestigious mansion where custom-made everything is the essence” and said “this magnificent Old Westbury inspired chateau resonates with quality, volume and elegance.” It’s on the 14th fairway of Quail Hollow Club.
The sale of former Rep. Robert Pittenger’s mansion on the Quail Hollow golf course is apparently the most expensive sale in Mecklenburg County in 2023. (Photo from county property records)
The tranquility of the Pittenger chateau was an issue in a long-running property dispute between the Pittengers and next-door neighbor Doug Lebda, the CEO of LendingTree, and his wife, which The Ledger covered extensively in 2019 and 2020. The Pittengers alleged that construction of a large new Lebda house violated neighborhood restrictions and invaded their privacy. A judge sided with the Lebdas in December 2020.
Real estate records show that Smith’s company Foxcroft Equity purchased the home. Publicly available loan documents refer to the property on Baltusrol Lane as a “second home.” Property records show Smith last year bought a mansion on Eagle Glen, on the opposite side of the golf course, for $6.2M.
Pittenger is a Republican who represented Charlotte in Congress from 2013 to 2019.
The Charlotte Business Journal reported last month that the most expensive home sale in Mecklenburg in 2023 was a 10,000 s.f. house sold in April in Foxcroft for $7.5M. The all-time record appears to be a $9.2M sale of two parcels in Eastover in 2021. —TM
Related Ledger articles:
“The real Quail Hollow drama takes place in two mansions” (May 6, 2019)
“Juicy new details in Lebda-Pittenger mansion fight” (Oct. 2, 2019)
“Pittenger says Lebda spied on his house with a drone” (June 24, 2020)
“Mecklenburg’s million-dollar house surge” (March 24, 2023)
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How local stocks of note fared last week (through Friday’s close), and year to date:
Delight and impress this Thanksgiving 🦃 with our helpful teen lingo cheat sheet
Nothing says you’re in touch with the younger generation than speaking their language – and The Ledger as always is here to help you out around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
You can download our Teen Talk Thanksgiving Cheat Sheet, then bust out some teen lingo over some bussin’ (tasty) turkey and mashed potatoes. Your relatives might think your new vocabulary is sus (suspicious), but we’ve tested each word so you can have as much confidence sliding them into conversation as you would into someone’s DMs (direct social media messages).
And that’s no cap (that’s the truth)!
For maximum results, though, we suggest slightly misusing them so as to elicit eye rolls 🙄 or accusations of being cringe (cringeworthy).
Exciting announcement: Our popular “Teen Talk” feature will return in 2024.
Hope you have a Thanksgiving that slaps (is awesome)!
You might be interested in these Charlotte events: Good Friends Charlotte fundraising luncheon
Events submitted by readers to The Ledger’s events board:
DECEMBER 14: Good Friends Charlotte 2023 Gather & Give Fundraising Luncheon, 12 p.m., Charlotte Convention Center. Join Good Friends Charlotte for our 37th Gather & Give luncheon, which raises funds that provide financial assistance and hope to those in need. Thanks to you, we raised over $650,000 last year. Registration closes November 30! Reserve your seats online. $75.
An article in Friday’s newsletter inaccurately described the logo of Palmetto State Armory, which is planning to open an indoor shooting range near Carolina Place Mall. The logo is of two crisscrossed cannons (not bullets). Our apologies.
Couple was smoking legal cannabis product, lawyer says: An attorney for the man and woman involved in a violent confrontation with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers last week were approached while smoking a legal variety of marijuana. Police had said the confrontation started when officers spotted the two smoking marijuana, but their lawyer said it was a legal product sold at smoke shops called THC-A. The confrontation led to a struggle in which an officer was filmed punching the woman in the leg. (WFAE)
Governor and N.C. Chamber tangle over judges: The N.C. Chamber is pushing back against Gov. Roy Cooper’s suggestion that it is helping block appointments of Black judges to North Carolina courts. The business advocacy group’s CEO wrote to Cooper that “being wrongly and arrogantly lectured to by the state’s chief executive with outrageous claims of racism is enormously hurtful and dispiriting.” Cooper had said in a letter Friday that the Chamber “has not supported the nomination of several Black nominees to judicial and quasi-judicial roles, despite repeated requests to do so.” (Business North Carolina)
Hornets pick gambling partner: The Charlotte Hornets have selected bet365 to be the team’s online gambling partner, becoming the first pro sports team in North Carolina to partner with a gambling operator. Companies offering online gambling in North Carolina must have partnerships in place with pro sports teams. State regulators are setting up rules for sports betting, which is scheduled to start by the middle of 2024. (WSOC)
Spectrum Center renovations throw off graduation plans: June graduation plans for Myers Park High and Ardrey Kell High shifted last week, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators learned earlier this month that planned renovations to the Spectrum Center uptown would take the venue offline for graduations. The two graduations had been scheduled for June 10, and now both will take place on June 13 at Bojangles Coliseum. CMS high schools graduate at a variety of locations across the county.
Big pickleball plans: An indoor pickleball court franchise called Dill Dinkers plans to open 20 locations in the Charlotte area in the next five to seven years. The company says it “sets itself apart by putting the focus on the game — not creating an entertainment concept with pickleball,” the Charlotte Business Journal says.
‘Tammy Faye’ musical headed to Broadway: Elton John’s production company announced that it is taking the musical “Tammy Faye,” based on the life of the late Tammy Faye Bakker, to Broadway in 2024-25. (Observer)
Chuck E. Cheese to eliminate singing robot animals: The Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain says it plans to remove its animatronic bands from all locations except one in California, part of an updating of its 400+ restaurants. In Charlotte, there are two Chuck E. Cheeses: one on Pineville-Matthews Road in south Charlotte and another on Albemarle Road in east Charlotte, in addition to spots in Concord, Gastonia and Hickory. (USA Today)
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Executive editor: Tony Mecia; Managing editor: Cristina Bolling; Staff writer: Lindsey Banks; Business manager: Brie Chrisman, BC Creative