Local Music Makers: Ever Swingin’ with the Greatest of Ease, Russ Wilson
Russ Wilson’s illustrious 40-year career has earned him monikers fit for a star. Some refer to him as the “Godfather of Jazz” and a musical “Renaissance Man.” He deserved these distinguished titles by being diligent, motivated and passionate.
Relaxing in a comfy chair on his shady back porch listening to his vintage vinyl, cigar in one hand a whiskey in the other definitely helps to rejuvenate him in between concerts, gigs and shows.
Conversely, putting in the enormous amount of work and time it takes to prevail as a singer, bandleader, conductor, producer and entrepreneur is time well spent for this maestro.
While Wilson excels and enjoys playing and singing a plethora of genres and musical styles, he makes no bones about admitting that there’s “nothing more thrilling for me personally, than Jazz.”
Wilson’s dexterity behind a drum kit of any size, and his expertise as a conductor are notable for sure. But it’s that voice. I refer to him as the “quintessential crooner.” He barely needs a microphone.
When he combines drumming with singing, he makes it look so doggone easy. It’s a real skill to hold down a steady meter while emoting a melody or belting out a torch song. He does it with the greatest of ease.
I’m happy to name drop on his behalf by quantifying his prowess and pointing out the many greats with whom he’s shared stages. There’s Charles Dungee (Nancy Wilson & Sarah Vaughn), Melva Houston (world renown Jazz singer), Jimmy Thackery (The Nighthawks), Kim Wilson (Fabulous Thunderbirds), Mookie Brill (world renown singer and musician), Hubert Sumlin (Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist for 25 years), Charlie Musselwhite (world famous Harmonica player), Calvin “Fuzz” Jones (Bass player for Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf), Levon Helm (THE BAND), Carey Bell (world famous harmonica player), Dave Maxwell (pianist with Freddie King) and Bob Margolin (guitarist for Muddy Waters).
An amateur historian to boot, Russ has a collection of 4000 and counting vintage vinyl records, obtaining all the different sizes and cylinders. Plus, he’s got a collection of Victors, Victrolas and turn tables on which to play them. Wilson even hosts his own weekly radio show called “In the Groove’’ from 7pm-8pm on Monday evenings on WPVM – 103.7 where you’ll hear him spin his latest finds and favorite selections.
He credits his dad for this lifelong devotion for collecting and listening to records. Though his father was not a musician, he was a long-time subscriber to Readers Digest. Back in the day, and long before Time-Life did, Reader’s Digest offered compilation record box sets. The elder Wilson purchased practically all of them.
Two of those albums would become Russ’s main influences: “In the Groove with the Kings of Swing, and The Great Band Era.” He says, “I cut my teeth on Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Fats Waller.”
When asked in a previous interview of all the things he does well, which skill is his favorite Wilson says, “Conducting. I love to play drums. I love to sing. But I love to conduct.”
Since drummers are the drivers, the ones in control of the road, it was a natural integration into conducting for Russ. He says, “To wave a stick at 15 or 30 or 40 or 50 musicians and they follow me, is quite a feeling of control.”
That’s exactly what he’ll be doing come February 2024. I urge you readers and especially those who love Big Band, to mark your calendars! Lipinsky Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina Asheville is the venue for a concert you aficionados should not miss.
Sunday, February 4, 2024: “Rhapsody 100, The Experiment Continues” will be a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the original 1924 concert “Experiment In Modern Music” (produced by bandleader Paul Whiteman) and George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.”
The brainchild of Associate Professor of music at UNCA, Dr. William Bares and composer/pianist Richard Shulman, Russ Wilson will be conducting the first half of Act 1 of the show, which will include 3 arrangements and songs from the 1924 concert: “Whispering,” Victor Herbert’s “Suite of Serenades” and the original 1924 version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.”
The second half of Act 1 Russ will hand the baton over to the up-and-coming female conductor from UNCA, Emily Eng.
Act II of the concert will feature new orchestral compositions by local and renowned pianist and composer, Richard Shulman, trumpeter, Justin Ray (Michael Buble) and others.
To give you some perspective, picture this: 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 3 French horns, 4 saxophones (doubling on a myriad of additional instruments), tuba, string bass, banjo, piano, drums, 8 violins (and a partridge in a pear tree!)
During portions of the concert the stage will be pulsating with the sounds of 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 5 saxophones, bass, drums, and a full string section including viola, violin and cello. To be present at a concert where players will be added and subtracted from the core orchestra is sure to be a stimulating and exhilarating evening of Big Band music.
Thanks in big part to Russ Wilson; WNC is on the map as a go-to destination for audiences to hear the finest players of Swing, Big Band, Bop and Jazz music.
His website, which I encourage you to visit, http://www.everswinging.com/ . It's his “it’s all about me” corner of the World Wide Web. You’ll discover where and when and with whom he’ll be playing between now and February 2024.
A native of Hendersonville, NC you can’t get any closer to celebrity than our own backyard and Russ Wilson, is right up there at the top of the heap.
Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach,
song interpreter, and songwriter.
For vocal coaching email her at