As he reflects on his career, drummer Ron Wiltrout counts his blessings. “Being able to make a living playing drums within three months of graduating college — I will never take that for granted,” he says. And he has been grateful for the emergence of Forte Jazz Lounge. “Having a dedicated listening space is very hard to come by. ...To have a listening room for jazz is vital to support a vibrant creative community.”
Like so many others, Wiltrout got his start in the middle school band. He attended Goose Creek High school (just outside of Charleston), where he describes having a “really good high school band director… who made sure we knew there was a lot out there to learn, and that if you want to learn something, you kinda become obsessed with it.” His band director recommended that Wiltrout attend workshops in the tricounty area. “That really opened my ears up to really big things,” he says, “because I had professional jazz educators describing in really concrete ways what I was hearing.”
As he grew older, so too did Wiltrout’s fascination with jazz grow. “I was really excited about figuring things out, solving the puzzles,” he remembers. “It seemed like jazz was a good way to kind of get to the fundamentals of everything.” He went on to pursue a jazz degree at University of South Carolina, where he was especially influenced by director of jazz studies Bert Ligon and then- director of percussion studies Jim Hall (now professor emeritus).
Upon graduation, he quickly decided to return to the Charleston area; and he knew he needed to be versatile in order to stay employed. “When I first got out of college, my first gigs were like, playing in a house band, playing everything from straight-ahead jazz to Sade covers. You had to be able to play grooves and backbeats and shuffles. You had to be able to play pretty much everything.” Wiltrout notes that the diversity of the Charleston music scene is part of why he loves it: “Since it’s a small town, you meet everybody pretty quick. Old professionals who’ve been doing it fifty years, people who’ve been doing it five years and everything in between. I could take the rock, the salsa, the jazz — every night playing a different kind of gig.”
Music has taken Wiltrout to New York dozens of times, and as far away as Australia, but his jazz work tends to stay within the region between Charleston and Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA. (One career highlight was during Spoleto Festival USA, when well-known drummer Eric Harland, then a member of the Charles Lloyd quartet, rented Wiltrout’s drums for a performance.) He has worked with local legends Charlton Singleton and Quentin Baxter, calling Baxter one of his “top five influences of all time and a personal hero.” He has played with the Charleston Latin Jazz Collective, the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, and countless other groups, many of which he has led.
Ron Wiltrout is playing at Forte Jazz Lounge on Thursday Sept. 17 and Thursday Sept. 24. For more about Ron Wiltrout, visit his website at http://www.ronwiltrout.com.