Big band theory

Waxing rhapsodic: Hendersonville native Russ Wilson, a touring musician, drummer and vocalist, shows off his bandleader skills. He presents a night of 1920s and 30s jazz, including Paul Whiteman’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Photo by Karen Edwards

Photo: Waxing rhapsodic — Hendersonville native Russ Wilson, a touring musician, drummer and vocalist, shows off his bandleader skills. He presents a night of 1920s and 30s jazz, including Paul Whiteman’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Photo by Karen Edwardson

“Most people think this is the land of bluegrass, but guess what?” says local musician and bandleader Russ Wilson. This year marks the 10th anniversary of his 10-piece Nouveau Passe Orchestra. And with other musical endeavors under his belt — five-piece jump blues outfit, Mighty Mighty Men; The Russ Wilson Swing Trio; and appearances with the likes of The John Henrys, Firecracker Jazz Band and 3 Cool Cats — Wilson finds himself poised at the center of not a roots-music resurgence but an ebullient jazz scene.

It’s happening other places, too: Vanity Fair and NY Daily News recently covered the hot jazz renaissance in New York City. Wilson says the same thing is happing in L.A. and probably Chicago. “There is a growing jazz scene in Asheville,” he says. “Since 2011, I’ve not been getting much sleep.”

And though a fellow musician called this time Asheville’s “golden age of jazz,” Wilson believes there’s more to come. “I don’t think we’ve seen the golden age yet,” he says.

The first golden age of jazz took place in the 1940s (the Library of Congress has a set of William P. Gottlieb photographs documenting the epoch); Wilson taps the precursor to that time for his upcoming concert, Rhapsody: The Music of Paul Whiteman at Diana Wortham Theatre. “Whiteman was the Michael Jackson of his era,” says Wilson. “He was called the King of Jazz.” Whiteman’s orchestra jump-started the careers of Bing Crobsy and Bix Beiderbecke, among others. He commissioned none other than George Gershwin, in 1923, to write “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Some controversy swirls around the band leader’s career because he did not hire African-American artists for his orchestra, though Wilson suspects that had more to do with societal pressures than Whiteman’s personal beliefs. “In the late teens and early ’20s, jazz was considered vulgar,” says Wilson. “He took it and played it in fine hotels, and people loved it. He brought it to the masses.”

One of Whiteman’s stops could have been the George Vanderbilt Hotel (now senior housing on Haywood Street), which had a ballroom and a regular dance bands. In 1925 Okeh Records set up a temporary recording studio atop the hotel.

During the same period, the ‘20s and ‘30s, Whiteman’s refined blend of ragtime and hot jazz, played by a 35-member orchestra, hit its peak of popularity. A few years ago, while on a break from his touring gig with guitarist Jimmy Thackery, Wilson received a tip about an online collection of Whiteman’s arrangement, including handwritten parts. Fifteen of 22 arrangements were intact.

It’s those historical arrangements (including "Hallelujah," "If I Had A Talking Picture Of You," "Back In Your Own Backyard," "Oh, Miss Hannah," "Reaching For Someone," "You Took Advantage Of Me," "Lonely Melody," "Runnin' Wild" and "Happy Feet”) that Wilson and his ambitious big band — a 35-member orchestra, in true Whiteman style, along with an additional few musicians for a couple of Dixieland jazz combos — will perform at this week’s Rhapsody show. “If you’re going to do a concert of vintage jazz, whether it’s Whiteman’s music or Duke Ellington’s music of the Cotton Club era, or Benny Goodman’s swing music from the 1930s, there’s a certain sound and a certain way this music was played,” says the local band leader. To stay true to the original intent, he’s bringing in a drummer from Davenport, Iowa, who travels with his own 1920s vintage Leedy kit complete with timpani, gong and orchestra chimes. “There’s a certain historical aspect to it, and a musical aspect. You want it to sound correct,” says Wilson.

As for the classical-and-jazz mashup, “Rhapsody in Blue,” don’t expect the well-known symphonic rendition. The version that Wilson will showcase is not part of the 15-piece collection that he found online. Instead, “When this came out in 1924, it was written for 23 musicians,” says Wilson. It debuted at a concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music,” with Gershwin playing the piano part.

Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé, wrote additional parts as Whiteman grew his band. “I had an arrangement in my archives,” says Wilson. He conferred with other musicians and together, “We’re giving our interpretation of how the Whiteman band would have sounded in 1927.” The orchestra includes four trumpets, four trombones, six saxophones, six violins, string bass, tuba, banjo, guitar, piano and drums. Soloists are David Jellema on cornet, Steve Alford on C-melody sax, Rick Simerly on trombone and Dr. William Bares on piano for “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Despite Whiteman’s fame, revivals of his music have been surprisingly few. Jazz critic and trumpet player Richard Sudhalter used some of Whiteman’s arrangements for a concert some 40 years ago. Wilson attempted the production three years ago but bad weather but a damper on the event. Now, with his own big band celebrating a decade in WNC jazz, the local musician believes the timing is right: “The only thing to do is present good music by one of my favorite band leaders.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at

what: Russ Wilson and his concert orchestra present Rhapsody: The Music of Paul Whiteman
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
where: Saturday, Aug. 31 (7 p.m., $30 adults / $20 seniors, students and children.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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