It’s almost cliche’: prominent jazz musician teaches his son to play; son rebels, joins a heavy-metal band and becomes famous. But for Queens-based Nick Russo, it was the other way around.
Russo grew up in Selden and learned to play guitar from his father, a member of the 1970’s metal band Scarecrow, about whom Russo said, “The were wearing face makeup before Kiss was.”
While he has stayed true to his roots by publishing two books of transcribed guitar licks from heavy-metal legends, he primarily makes his living as a jazz musician.
Russo, an alumnus of Newfield High School, Stony Brook University and Queens College, plays roughly five gigs a week in New York, Long Island and Connecticut with a rotating constellation of backup musicians. He has played in Canada, Japan and Russia and is planning to tour Brazil with vocalist Jennifer Jade Ledesna early next year. He also plays guitar and banjo for Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, a Dixieland revival combo. He works frequently as a studio session guitarist and is a featured spokesman for Thomastik-Infeld guitar strings.
In 2001, Russo was selected to attend the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Academy, a yearly program in which musicians spend two weeks in intense study, free of charge, with jazz luminaries like Ray Brown and Bobby Hutcherson. His original music is an engaging blend of straight-ahead jazz and modern, ethnic elements.
Russo recently recorded an album with two musicians of global prominence, saxophonist Mark Turner and vocalist Miles Griffith, as well as table player Samir Chatterjee, from whom Russo, ever eager to expand his musical horizons, is currently taking lessons on bol, a sort of vocal percussion that Indian musicians are expected to master before picking up a drum. Russo takes pride in his upcoming release. “It was an amazing session. We really got to explore different musical grounds. These guys had never recorded together before,” he said.
Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of Russo’s career is his zeal to bring jazz to younger audiences. “Jazz is so prevalent in our culture,” he said. “I used to go around libraries teaching kids to recognize jazz elements in cartoon themes. That way they could really enjoy it.”
This Sunday, Russo will be leading a workshop called, ‘Jazz Jam for Kids’, in which he will teach basic jazz concepts and demonstrate jazz’s pervasive influence on American music. Afterwards, he and his band will perform a number of original songs and beloved standards.
In addition to his children’s programs, Russo teaches guitar privately in his Long Island City studio. He has traveled through various high schools through a Queens College alumni program and is a former instructor for the National Guitar Workshop.