In his 28 years of life, Jay Daniels ’20, has been many things: a 911 dispatcher, a television master control operator, radio advertising salesman, part-time grocery store cashier, radio personality, choir director, a performer specializing in “Great American Songbook” standards, and a music education student at Shenandoah Conservatory.
He remains the last four. He pays the bills by performing at venues around the region, including retirement communities and country clubs. He plays piano, sings, tells stories and a few jokes. “I want to be able to brighten somebody’s day through the music,” he said. He also informs the community at large with a weekly public affairs show, “Community Matters,” which he produces for Christian radio station Joy FM, and which is broadcast in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, through the station’s parent company, Positive Alternative Radio. Daniels records the show at his Winchester home.
He never thought he’d be at this point several years ago.
Daniels, whose given name is Jeffrey Seay, but uses the Jay Daniels moniker professionally, didn’t intend to have such a varied career before beginning college studies. He grew up in Louisa County, Virginia, and graduated from Piedmont Christian School in Bumpass, a member of a class of four students. He said his parents’ divorce depleted funds available for college, so instead of heading to a four-year-school (Shenandoah’s mass communications program had intrigued him) he took a Columbia School of Broadcasting correspondence course, which set him on the career path he followed for the next decade or so.
Admittedly, he always loved radio and music, in equal measure. He fell in love with classic country and pop music, early. He spent a great deal of time with his grandparents, who listened to country and Southern gospel music. Daniels said he can still see his grandmother’s wicker rack of cassettes. One of those cassettes was “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” by Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, which he loved. Daniels also recalled his grandfather, who was also an organist, whistling the Cline hit, “I Fall to Pieces.” Unsurprisingly, Daniels was a Cline fan, and her recordings of popular standards introduced Daniels to the original versions of those songs, dating from the Big Band era and before.
Although Daniels was always connected to music, and took piano lessons for several years, radio felt like his link/escape to the outside world as he grew up in a somewhat remote area. He pretended to be a disc jockey as a youngster, making mixtapes in which he introduced and back-sold songs. After finishing his broadcasting course, he ended up working primarily in television master control in Charlottesville and Lynchburg, with a brief foray into 911 dispatch. During this era, he rekindled his love of music, after having seen his first jazz concert.
As the years passed, he scraped by, working in radio sales, primarily in western and central Virginia. On New Year’s Eve, 2010, his beloved grandmother passed away. He recalled the lesson he learned after spending the day with his grandmother the day before her death. The pair followed their usual routine. They watched “The Price Is Right,” the noon news, “The Young & the Restless,” and “Wheel of Fortune,” just like always. But just the fact that he was there, made all the the difference. “I learned something that has made life that much sweeter” – that people need to make time for the people important to them, and that “time is precious, time is fleeting.”
Still, it took a while for the lesson to get through, in terms of caring for himself. He was in such dire need of money that he would often donate plasma, and by 2011, he woke up one night with stabbing stomach pains, only to discover that he had developed a peptic ulcer in his early 20s. He tried another radio sales job, and when that didn’t work out, he picked up a part-time job at a Kroger grocery store. People helped keep gas in his car and food on his table. Also, he had remained connected to Positive Alternative Radio (PAR), which operates Christian radio networks in the Mid-Atlantic, and for which he had done some part-time work for in the past. That connection proved fruitful, when PAR called to interview him for a job as an underwriting representative. Within a few years, the company was also looking for someone to do a community affairs show, and Daniels happily took it on, learning about the good being done in some of the communities served by PAR’s stations.
By summer 2015, he was in a fairly good place. He was working from home in Stuarts Draft, and had started performing at retirement communities, presenting mostly Frank Sinatra songs. But he knew he needed something more. One afternoon as rain poured down, he asked himself, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” And, he began to think that he needed to pursue a full-time music career.
He talked to a friend, who is a saxophonist, and realized that teaching felt like the best path to take. Then, he met with a violinist who was a Shenandoah Conservatory alumna, and she recommended that he speak to the folks there about studying music education. He thought about being a music educator, prayed, put in an application to Shenandoah and went to a conservatory open house.
And he was accepted to the music education program. “Jay demonstrates a passion for music and a passion for sharing music with others. He is thoughtful in his actions and has a genuine interest in becoming a music educator,” said conservatory Director of Music Education; Assistant Dean for Student Learning; Associate Professor of Music and Charlotte A. and Verne E. Collins Endowed Professor Jeffrey H. Marlatt, Ph.D.
Daniels then took a financial risk, resigning from PAR and moving to Winchester. But, what happened after that was almost “divine providence,” he said. His PAR resignation never fully “took,” and he continued doing some work for the company. He picked up plenty of gigs around the region, playing the standards he loves, and continued to direct the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.
“It’s never too late to start over again,” he said. “The only person stopping you from doing it is yourself.”
He’s not exactly sure where his music education studies will take him – to teaching private lessons or elsewhere. If he makes a difference by passing on his love of music to even just one other person, “I feel my work is done,” he said, before noting, with the hard-won knowledge of the past decade, “I’ve learned that plans are made to be broken.”