Asheville band leader launches yearlong history of jazz concert series

AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING: One of the busiest musicians in Asheville will be busier still this year, heading Russ Wilson's History of Jazz concert series. The dozen events take their cues from Paul Whiteman's concert, An Experiment in Modern Music, staged nearly a century ago. Photo by Brad Nathanson

On Feb. 12, 1924, jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman staged a concert at New York City’s famed Aeolian Hall. That event, billed as An Experiment in Modern Music, featured George Gershwin’s premiere performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Whiteman (sometimes called the King of Jazz) would go on to stage many more concerts in the Experiment series, and the shows would become an important part of jazz history in the U.S. This year, Asheville’s godfather of jazz, Russ Wilson, is mounting a similar concert series that he calls Russ Wilson’s History of Jazz. The yearlong Sunday evening series at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall kicked off with a Jan. 3 set, and the next installment, “The Roots of Jazz,” takes place Jan. 24.

Pausing between three back-to-back gigs within the space of 24 hours, Wilson explains the idea behind the concert series. “Almost every style of jazz is being played” here in Asheville, he says. He goes on to list some of the many jazz ensembles currently playing in and around town. This city of under 100,000 people is host to no fewer than three larger-scale jazz groups, he says. “There’s my orchestra, there’s the Asheville Jazz Orchestra, there’s Steve Alford‘s Rational Discourse. That’s three fabulous big bands just in Asheville!” Wilson is also putting together yet another big band, the Euphonic Ragtime Orchestra, specifically for the series’ Sunday, Feb. 7, show.

“So I thought, ‘OK, since we’ve got all these styles of jazz being played, why don’t we take that and feature all the local talent?’” Wilson says. “Let’s show the people that we can do this chronological history of jazz.” He notes that the 12-plus concerts in this History of Jazz series will exclusively feature WNC musicians. “There are no national acts, no ‘headline’ names” on the bill, he says. Taken as a whole, the series will guide audiences through the developments in jazz, from pre-jazz gospel vocal to Dixieland to swing, bop and many other styles.

“There is such a cool, eclectic, vibrant jazz scene going on,” Wilson says of Asheville. “You would expect something like this, maybe, in Charlotte. But it’s not happening there, it’s happening here.” He notes that out-of-town visitors at his shows tell him that there’s not a jazz scene like this unless you go to somewhere like New York.

While most of the shows in Russ Wilson’s History of Jazz will take place at Isis (variously upstairs and downstairs, depending on the size of the act), plans are underway for a special Saturday, Nov. 12, show at the Diana Wortham Theatre, titled Russ Wilson’s Experiment in Modern Music. Taking the baton from Whiteman’s concerts of nearly a century ago, this show will feature the premieres of five orchestral jazz works, commissioned specially for the event. Local composers Richard Shulman, Michael Jefry Stevens, Henry Westmoreland (aka Hank West), Alan Theisen and Ben Hovey will each contribute new works. Connecting to the 1924 event, the show will also feature a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.” The Diana Wortham event is contingent on acquiring funding. “I’m talking to grant writers, and I may do a crowdfunding campaign, but I would love to find a sponsor,” Wilson says.

The longtime Asheville resident (and Hendersonville native) feels that the time is right — both for himself and Asheville — for a concert series such as this. “I’ve gotten to the point of running my own business, Wilson Music Company, and running 12 bands of my own. This [concert series] is the biggest thing I’ve tackled so far. And I’m ready. And if I don’t do it, who will?” Wilson asks.

He believes that Asheville “always has been a kind of bohemian community, one full of music lovers.” He notes that while other cities have had their own music scenes, “right now it’s Asheville’s turn. And I think it’s going to be so for quite a while.”

Wilson quotes his friend and musical associate Hank Bones: “We’re in the golden age of music gigs here in Asheville,” but takes mild issue with that assertion. “I don’t think we’ve even seen [that golden age] yet,” he says.

Wilson’s concert series is an ambitious undertaking, involving booking space and working with the schedules (and temperaments) of dozens of musicians. “People tell me I’m one of the hardest-working people in show business,” Wilson says. “I tell ’em, ‘I’ve got a mortgage, a car payment and a wife!’ But honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what I do.” Wilson will emcee all of the concerts and will perform at several of the dates.

Attending Russ Wilson’s History of Jazz, “You’ll get a little bit of a history lesson along with being entertained,” Wilson says, while admitting that the concerts won’t explore “every single detailed genre of jazz.” But then there’s always next year — and beyond — for those.

WHAT: “The Roots of Jazz,” the second installment in the Russ Wilson’s History of Jazz concert series
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 24, 7:30 p.m. $15

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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