There’s always a special smile on the face of famed jazz guitarist Wayne Wilkinson, a peaceful joy when he and his guitars are on stage or in front of an audience.
That smile faded when COVID-19 arrived and in a jarring moment last March the music stopped as clubs and concerts, tours and festivals screeched to a halt. People were locked down in their homes to slow the pandemic’s spread.
Wilkinson reached out to other musicians. “We were all rattled,” he admits. “I need to play. It’s good for my sanity.” And he wanted to find a way through music to help people amid uncertain times.
There was special music, too, from his studio in his home in Texas and now he is live on Sunday evenings in his YouTube/Facebook watch parties starting at 5 p.m.
Each virtual performance ends with his personal touch just right for the times, one of the traditional church hymns.
The couple splits time between Texas and their home in Colorado Springs.
In the world of Zoom, he continued teaching student lessons and master classes.
Music has been Wilkinson’s life for decades, starting in hometown San Antonio where his father, Doyle, played guitar. Wayne wasn’t much interested until he turned 15 “and the light went on. God said, ‘you are a guitar player’.”
His father, a World War II veteran, was an inspiration throughout Wayne’s life. In his 40s, his dad was shocked in a work accident and fell from a ladder. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he turned to his music, playing shows for retirement homes for 30 years. With pride, his son says, “he was playing 30 gigs a month when he retired in his 70s.” The folded flag from his father’s funeral is in Wayne’s home music studio.
Wayne joined the Army in 1976, playing in a band. When that tour ended, “I walked right over and enlisted in the Air Force,” sights set on its two famous bands.
Success. He successfully auditioned for the Air Force Academy Band and after eight years moved on to the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington D.C., where he had a 16-year career. He was part of the premier jazz ensembles Airmen of Note in Washington and the academy’s Falconaires.
Then it was back to Colorado Springs where he added even more to his career.
He has toured the world and performed with so many star musicians that the list fills pages. He has played at the White House and in Carnegie Hall. One favorite local gig is Earl Klugh’s annual Weekend of Jazz at the Broadmoor, which was one of the victims of 2020.
Of all the music greats he has worked with, Wilkinson doesn’t even pause when asked who was the greatest. And there’s a Colorado Springs connection. It’s Johnny Smith. The jazz legend taught guitar to hundreds of young musicians and had a music store on South Eighth Street while he also designed jazz guitars including for Gibson guitars. This followed a headliner career as what Vintage Guitar magazine called “arguably the most respected and revered guitarist of the modern era” whose recording “Moonlight in Vermont” remains one of the best selling jazz records. Wilkinson was one of only three guitarists invited to play for a celebrity-filled, musician-laden birthday party for Smith, who died in 2013 before his 91st birthday.
Another music connection was with luthier Bob Benedetto, who makes the breathtaking, one-of-a-kind guitars used by Wayne Wilkinson. Benedetto was quoted in a trade publication that Johnny Smith had made a major impact on his career making guitars used by five generations.
Wilkinson plays Benedetto Bravo Elite, Benedetto Bambino and Benedetto Ben-Bino jazz guitars. He’s also a GHS Strings artist, an endorser for Jim Dunlop USA Jazz picks and uses Henriksen amplifiers.
For 10 years, he was an adjunct professor for jazz guitar at Colorado State University Pueblo and conducts master classes and clinics around the country.
He helped establish the jazz program at Colorado Springs Conservatory, which had another major life connection. Conservatory founder Linda Weise, who Wilkinson calls the Energizer Bunny, turned Cupid by fixing up her jazz faculty member and friend with a community volunteer and businesswoman who just happened to be one of the Conservatory board members, Sherri Newell. They were married in 2012.
What’s next for Wayne and Sherri? The post-COVID-19 world awaits. High on his list is to play with the Colorado Springs Philharmonic when it takes the stage again. Then there is more touring.
They have been to London, Tel Aviv and Vail festivals, a U.K. tour and Hawaii.
Years ago, Wilkinson toured in Japan and wants to return. He relishes a possible tour to China, and they would like to go to Australia as well.
“We’re ready,” Wilkinson says, picking up his favorite guitar.