Young jazz guitarist selected for national music awardMore Info
West Stockbridge — When Nico Wohl’s first-grade teacher asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, his answer came quickly: “I want to be in a band,” he remembers announcing. Though he would not go on to pick up a guitar for another five years, somehow his passion for music was inherent.
By the time he was 11 years old, he had acquired his first guitar—a small, acoustic version—and subsequently taught himself to play by ear. The first song Wohl mastered was “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, a 1980 hit coined two decades before the young musician’s own birth. In the ensuing eight years, Wohl has established himself as an accomplished jazz guitar player, a feat for which he was recently recognized. In January, Wohl was named a 2019 YoungArts finalist snagging one of just six spots awarded to jazz musicians selected from a pool of more than 500 applicants. The National YoungArts Foundation recognizes artists for excellence in the visual, literary, design and performing arts.
“Everyone who is competitive applies,” explained Wohl. “I was not expecting this … I was so surprised,” he said of the honor. YoungArts’ signature program is an application-based award for emerging artists ages 15–18 or in grades 10–12 from across the United States. Selected through a blind adjudication process conducted by an independent panel of highly accomplished artists, YoungArts winners receive valuable support, including financial awards of up to $10,000, professional development and educational experiences working with renowned mentors, and performance and exhibition opportunities at some of the nation’s leading cultural institutions.
Earlier this year, Wohl participated in the 38th annual National YoungArts Week in Miami. During the intensive, weeklong program, Wohl was one of 160 finalists across 10 disciplines participating in master classes and workshops with internationally recognized leaders in their respective fields. Nightly performances, spanning myriad genres from cinematic arts and classical music to dance and design, allowed for collaboration with musicians who, interestingly enough, Wohl had previously encountered on entirely different stages.
“That’s the thing about jazz,” Wohl explained. “At the high level, it’s a pretty small world,” he added, noting “it’s rare that I hear about someone who is really good that I don’t know.” Case in point? The six jazz musicians with whom he collaborated in Miami were all known to Wohl from other programs.
During his four years of high school, Wohl participated in a pre-college program at the Manhattan School of Music; his acceptance meant traveling to Harlem each Saturday during the school year to take private lessons and further his study of improvisation, ear training, theory, composition/arranging, and jazz history/styles/analysis. The prestigious program gives talented instrumentalists the opportunity to grow as young jazz artists and is one of the few institutions in the U.S. offering jazz programs at the intermediate, secondary, undergraduate and doctoral levels. Students in this program have won numerous national honors including Downbeat, ASCAP, Mingus, and Monk Awards. As for Wohl’s take on the experience? “I probably would not be where I am today had it not been for that program,” he said, calling it “incredibly important” to his development as a musician. He also cited Steve Ide of Sheffield as an early influence.
Last summer, Wohl toured Europe with the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. The NYO-USA is a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and brings together the brightest young players from across the country. In 2018 Wohl was part of a tour that visited London, Amsterdam and Edinburgh; prior to their departure, the NYO performed at Carnegie Hall, an experience Wohl cited as “amazing, such a legendary venue.” Wohl has been accepted to participate for the coming summer, and looks forward to traveling to Asia. “I have a lot to look forward to,” he said of performances in Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Taipei.
“I’ve always loved [playing guitar],” said Wohl in a recent interview. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of love: you can be totally talented, but if you don’t work really hard, you won’t go anywhere,” he explained. Wohl cited his father, Matt, as instrumental in urging him on to pursue lessons, which he quickly did, ultimately finding Steve Ide of Sheffield, an accomplished musician himself, who had toured with Arlo Guthrie in the 1980s before settling down to raise his own family and perform with his own band, the BTUs, largely considered the Berkshires’ pre-eminent blues band.
Wohl’s study quickly took off as he learned to read music and began digging into songs he might master. “I loved playing immediately,” he recalled, divulging that, from time to time, he’d practice for eight hours a day, emerging with blistered hands like he did when he mastered the tune “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix. “I wouldn’t put down the guitar until I learned it,” said Wohl of the rhythm-and-blues-inspired ballad first recorded in 1967.
Wohl, a 2018 graduate of Monument Mountain Regional High School, will perform Saturday, April 20, at Mission Bar + Tapas in Pittsfield. He will share the stage with fellow MMRHS alum Richard Stanmeyer, who plays trumpet. Wohl, who has been on a gap year since June, is currently waiting to hear back from colleges. “It’s exciting,” he reported, adding, “I’m anxious … [but] all my auditions went pretty well.” He plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. In the meantime, he remains focused on the task at hand. “I’ve always loved playing,” he said. “It seems obvious, but it’s a direct correlation: The more time you spend working hard and focusing, the more fun it is. That’s really what drives me.”