August 7, 2008

Jammin’ on the Rizzo Riff

By Jeri Rowe

GREENSBORO -- Right now, there's not much to look at.

Cross East Lee, pass the cleared lot where Greensboro wants to root a growing downtown, and you'll find a spider web of empty rooms in the basement, and a top floor occupied by a church.

But hear Nathan Wainscott talk. Or better yet, park him in the basement and ask him to close his eyes.

He sees guitars by the walls, drums in the middle of the floor and turntables in what he calls the "Boom Boom Room." There, MCs can create beats inside an old boiler room that Wainscott hopes will make its thick walls vibrate and hum.

Wainscott wants to create an incubator for musicians -- young and old, seasoned and inexperienced -- to help them mine their creative side, stay away from a destructive side and plug into everything from recording to finding gigs.

It's a lofty dream, yes. But Wainscott is a pragmatic dreamer. He's turned his music incubator into a nonprofit, and he's found a building to lease and rounded up moral support from the influential, talented and well-known.

Meanwhile, he'll hold his first fundraiser Saturday -- a jazz festival in Greensboro's Sunset Hills neighborhood -- to drum up more support for a spot he named after a friend, a singer who died way too young.

That's Mark Rizzo.

Wainscott started thinking about his music incubator idea six years ago. He called it Musicians Anonymous and even sketched out a floor plan.

But his idea simply collected dust on his desk, elbowed aside by his daily-grind duties as a father, husband and owner of a decorative painting company.

Then, a year ago, as he lay in bed beside his wife, Melodie, watching local TV news, he heard someone say something about a "Ms. Rizzo." That's when something clicked.

"Oh my God," he told his wife. "That's it. The Marcus C. Rizzo Center for Musician Enrichment. That is what it's going to be!"

He stayed up until 4 in the morning, poring through his old plans as he remembered his friend, the sensitive soul of his old band, Bipolar Disorder.

Wainscott idolized Rizzo. He was two years older, a talented musician who played snare drum in Western Guilford High's marching band. But there was also something else. Rizzo was too cool in that rock n' roll sort of way.

He had this mane of brown hair, played a bright yellow guitar, wore black leather gloves when he drove his beige Honda Accord and cranked the car stereo so loud Nirvana and Pearl Jam sounded like wrinkling tin.

But less than a year after graduating from Western Guilford High, Rizzo fatally shot himself in his apartment on April 18, 1994. He was 18, working as a dishwasher at a local home for senior adults.

No note. No explanation. No nothing.

Like everyone, Wainscott was crushed. He still hurts.

But that morning last year, a few hours before sunrise, Wainscott realized how he could turn his own heartache into something heartfelt.

He approached Rizzo's family. They gave him their blessing. He approached city leaders. They offered their support. And he approached people like retired UNCG professor Bob Gingher, a board member with the Music Academy of North Carolina. Gingher jumped on board to help.

Then, Wainscott pulled out his old floor plan and realized the very place where he was renting space to paint looked exactly like what he saw in his head -- and sketched out on frayed trace paper -- a few years before.

"This wasn't just me having a creative moment," said Wainscott, 30. "This was meant to happen. Too many wide-open doors. Too many coincidences."

Rizzo's mother, Christine, has written poems to honor her oldest son every May 12, his birthday. Read them, and you'll see lines that are raw and emotional.

But in a poem from May 1995, between such phrases as "cold questions" and "unfulfilled dreams," you'll find this line: "We hope Heaven echoes with the sound of your guitar.''

Well, the sound of guitars -- and much, much more -- could ripple down South Elm as soon as next spring, in a spot named after her handsome son, pushed by a pragmatic dreamer who once stood behind her son's left shoulder playing guitar.

Coincidence? You tell me.

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or [email protected]

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