Big as Ever: Russ Wilson’s Famous Orchestra

Asheville, North Carolina is populated with scores of hard-working, ever-busy creative people who endeavor to bring their chosen art to the public. But among those, perhaps the busiest of all is Russ Wilson. It’s difficult to keep a current tally on just how many musical projects he’s juggling at any given moment, but of late the highest-profile among these is Russ Wilson’ Famous Orchestra. As part of a series of concerts celebrating the five-year anniversary of Isis Music Hall in West Asheville, Wilson’s big band performed on October 8.

Throughout 2016, Wilson staged an ambitious “History of Jazz” concert series that explored the many sub-styles of the American musical form, drawing strictly from the local pool of talent. While admitting that it involved a great deal of work, Wilson is proud of the project. “We achieved what we set out to do,” he says. The series covered ragtime, pre-war hot jazz, big band and swing jazz, hard bop, fusion and more. “There is an audience for every style,” Wilson says.

Photo by Frank Zipperer

But his first love is the sound of the big band, a style that enjoyed its heyday between the mid 1930s and the end of World War II. Wilson takes some issue with that perhaps too-neat description. “Big bands never left,” he says. For a time, it changed into a style less focused on dancing, more on listening. “But it’s going back to dancers now,” he says.

As evidence, Wilson points to Lindy Focus, an annual event hosted at Asheville’s Crowne Plaza Resort in December. Now in its sixteenth year, Lindy Focus brings together huge crowds who convene to dance (and listen, but mostly dance) to a lineup of big bands. “They come for the lessons, they come for the camaraderie, they come to dance,” Wilson says, “but they’ve also come to listen. They cheer on the soloists. They know the tunes, and they know the band leaders that played them.”

Not surprisingly, Wilson has his own opinion as to why big band jazz has endured. “For lack of a better term, it appeals to the masses,” he says. “Besides the true musical value – which has to be there – there’s entertainment value to it.”

Wilson has enjoyed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Isis Music Hall; the “History of Jazz” concert series was hosted there, and Wilson’s annual holiday extravaganza, “Have Yourself a Swingin’ Little Christmas” takes place at Isis every December.

Isis opened in 2012; the Woody family had bought the former movie theatre more than a decade earlier, and engaged in major renovations before opening. Even though West Asheville’s renaissance as a vibrant community hub was already well under way by that time, Isis quickly became a centerpiece of the area, hosting a steady and wide variety of musical acts on its main stage (with room for an audience of 450), its intimate upstairs lounge, and on its outdoor patio during warmer months.

“We see ourselves as part of Asheville,” Isis owner Scott Woody says, “and more specifically West Asheville. We hope that our presence will be an integral component to the positive growth of Asheville as a community and as a destination for visitors.” He points out that his entire family is involved in making Isis a success.

Isis’ 5-year anniversary was celebrated throughout October; the venue’s typically packed schedule included shows that month by Vance Gilbert (Oct. 4), Joe Crookston (Oct. 12), Holly Bowling (Oct. 13 and 14), the Claire Lynch Band on Oct. 18 (Lynch was one of the first acts to play Isis), and an October 27 show by Grammy-winning bluegrass star Sam Bush.

For a city of its size, Asheville enjoys an unusually rich assortment of entertainment options. Part of that is thanks to Asheville’s status as a popular destination: touring artists simply want to play here. If there’s a downside to that fact, Woody thinks it’s the threat of too much of a good thing. “One of the biggest challenges that we have, and really every music venue in this town has, is the saturation of music performances and ‘other things to do’ in Asheville,” he says.

Woody goes to great pains to de-emphasize the issue, but concedes that the unfortunate branding of the Islamic State radical religious fundamentalist group as ISIS has brought the decidedly un-radical Isis Music Hall some undeserved condemnation, and even harassment.

But he remains upbeat, noting that Isis fills a niche unique among local music venues. “It’s one of the few venues in town [where] you could enjoy a seated dinner and concert featuring classical music or a jazz trio, and then later the same evening enjoy a standing show party,” he says. And though it’s billed as a seated event, a dancing show party is what attendees will get with Russ Wilson and His Famous Orchestra.