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Farewell to a funny, talented lady

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I was never as funny as M.J. Wilde. No one was. No one, I think, will ever be.

That was obvious in our old Albuquerque Tribune days when I’d have to finish her popular “TV Queen” column for her because she wasn’t feeling well.

Fortunately, she had such a wickedly quick wit that she could bang out columns in advance to keep plenty in stock and readers happy.

Unfortunately, Wilde – or Melissa Jaramillo, as we knew her then – was often not feeling well, plagued as she was with migraines, chronic pain, dental problems, depression and Lord knows what else.

But unless she made a joke of her near-constant aches and pains – and she often did – few knew how much she suffered, how hard she gritted her teeth, until her teeth literally disintegrated. Few knew how extensive her regimen of pain medications had become at times, because no matter the dosage she was still lucid and clever, still one of the greatest jazz singers in the state. She could still find humor in the smallest things and beauty in the big sky she loved to

M.J. Wilde sang with various jazz groups and was named one of the Songbirds of Jazz by the New Mexico Jazz Workshop. But her biggest claim to fame might have been her chicken-squawking rendition of “Flight of the Bumblebee” performed live on “The Ellen Degeneres Show” in 2014. (Courtesy of Mj Wilde)

photograph in all its rich colors.

No matter how hard her depression fought her, she could still find joy.

“Remember,” she would say, “whatever the darkness or its depth, there is always a light.”

That light dimmed this week, and the world is a decidedly less jolly place. One of her brothers found her dead Wednesday in her Southeast Heights apartment after he was dispatched there when no one could reach her for days. The cause of death is unknown, and an autopsy is pending. She was 61.

News of her death has stunned the comedy, music, theater and journalism communities in which she had been such a shining star. I can honestly not think of anybody whose talent was so enormous that she could have become anything she wanted to be were it not for her illnesses and her own dark doubts. That’s a pity for the world but an even more precious gift to those of us with whom she shared her generous bounty.

“She was a badass, fearless, reckless, full-throttle artistic gift to everyone who knew her in this life,” niece Breanne Jaramillo said. “Her all-or-nothing, incredibly empathetic and emotionally charged lifestyle meant that she gave all she had to gift to the world and the ones she loved and burned out too soon. But maybe it was just enough for her and what God had planned for her destiny.”

M.J. Wilde performed for years with brother Gary Jaramillo. “We were one cute duo,” she wrote. “And yes, that is a flute I’m holding and I was one bad-ass Mama-Jama on that baby! Ha!”

Wilde was the sixth of eight children born to former Socorro Mayor Tony Jaramillo and his wife, Gloria, both of whom encouraged their children’s musical talents and irreverent senses of humor.

“I was practically born performing,” Wilde wrote. “Well, honestly, I was born laughing, then singing, then acting, then I just made funny sounds for a few years. Eventually, I put ’em all together. Yeah, good times. I was one weird little kid. But I sure could wail.”

In 1976, she attended the University of New Mexico on a theater scholarship but left after a year to travel the state with brother Gary Jaramillo as a musical duo.

In 1982, she worked as an editorial assistant at the Tribune, not because she desired to be a journalist (she didn’t) but because the newsroom then was five blocks from her apartment (she didn’t drive).

She humored her way into becoming the “TV Queen,” known for her hilarious takes on the Tube of Life and her manservant, Xavier.

She spent 1990 as a features writer for the Post-Star in Glens Falls, New York, and then returned to the Tribune, reclaiming her “TV Queen” throne and later writing a nationally award-winning column that looked at life from her trademark sideways point of view. Without explanation, she left the Tribune in 2005. To this day, I have never known why.

Despite chronic pain, M.J. Wilde could light up the room with her irreverent wit and vocal talents. She was also a writer and, according to her Facebook, a “Renaissance woman/bon vivant/raconteur/witch.”

In between and afterward, Wilde performed in numerous productions at the Vortex and Albuquerque Little Theatre. Her voice was ubiquitous on television and radio because of all the voice-over work she did. She wrote poetry, screenplays, blogs and a novel.

And lordy, could she sing. Jazz, scat, even chicken squawking an inimitable version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” as a 2014 talent finalist on “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” She was a fixture at the Ranchers Club. She sang at my wedding, arriving with me to the ceremony, the two of us in the back seat of my father’s borrowed Cadillac, chugging Champagne from the bottle and howling at her jokes.

The marriage didn’t last, but my love for her did.

Things did not turn out as she had hoped, as she deserved. She struggled to find work to support her art, and for a time she was homeless, though many of us did not know that until after she had found work as a live-in caretaker.

She struggled with medications, with depression.

“I am one of those who live in severe pain 24 hours a day,” she wrote last month. “It has driven me to the brink of suicide. If not for the understanding of my doctors and the treatment plan that includes the use of opioids, I would not be alive today. We are not junkies or bums. … No, the terrible causes of our never-ending pain are not terminal. But there are times, I can tell you, when the pain can bring you so close to madness that you wish with all your heart that it was terminal.”

The last time I saw her in person was in 2014 at a gathering at El Pinto. She was getting new teeth, or hoping to. She was looking forward to more singing, more writing, more acting, more being alive. I don’t think I have laughed as much as I did that evening – except for the other evenings and days I was lucky to have spent around her.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you,” she said. “Laugh-fart, and the world laughs at you and slowly backs away. Fine line. The world’s a tough room.”

The world was tough on her. But it was better for her in it.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 


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