Ron Wilkins, a beloved educator and musician from San Antonio, recently woke up from a month-long, medically induced coma in a COVID-19 ward. Over the weekend, he picked up his trombone for the first time since leaving Northeast Baptist hospital.
Wilkins got his big break about four decades ago, playing with trumpeter Clark Terry.
Fast forward to today: He just moved to Austin from New York City. Over the past four decades, he’s led several big bands, played on Broadway and taught at universities around Texas.
“I've had a very strong passion for that,” he said. “My mom was a career educator. And my dad always believed in the importance of having a good foundation involving education.”
He also spent a decade with the U.S. Air Force Band of the West at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
He’s led masterclasses around the world, and online.
The classes are free and open to anyone.
“Yeah, I was doing those in part to be able to give back to the community,” he said.
Each facebook masterclass eventually breaks out into a jam session, with Wilkins playing a blues bassline while students improvise. This type of spontaneous, intimate, interactive experience is why teachers like Wilkins are so beloved.
But he recently took a break from those masterclasses because he felt tired and had a fever.
“Still a little foggy headed dealing with the antihistamines especially with the pollen,” he told his Facebook followers in late March.
But it wasn’t just pollen. At the age of 62, and with underlying conditions and a transplanted kidney, his condition got worse in early April.
“I got COVID, which literally then put me in the hospital at Northeast Baptist for 32 days in a medically induced coma,” he said. “I was on a vent, I had a trach tube in me, I was intubated. And I don't remember much of anything on that because when they rushed me to the hospital, I was pretty much unconscious.”
He survived. But 32 days in a medically induced coma isn’t cheap.
“Because of my military status, I’m going through the VA, so I can go ahead and get copay on the treatment,” he said. “But it's still pricey, man. It's still pricey.”
About five million Texans don’t have health insurance. And unequal access to healthcare has an unsurprising effect during a pandemic.
“It's been ravaging through the Black community in particular and the communities of color because there's not as much accessibility to the proper testing that should be given to all communities,” he said. “And, of course, the issues with health care, as well, because you have a lot of people out there who can't afford proper health care.”
His former student, longtime collaborator, romantic partner, best friend and fellow trombonist, Becca Paterson, set up a go-fund-me called “Ron’s Road To Recovery.” It’s raised more than half of the $75,000 goal so far.
Wilkins considers himself lucky. He has a strong support network. And, in addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the U.S., COVID-19 has taken the lives of many jazz greats.
“There have been so many,” he said. “In particular, one of the biggest losses I think was the passing of the great jazz pianist and educator and pretty much patriarch of the Marsalis family, Ellis Marsalis.”
“Also the great seven stream jazz guitarist and master Bucky Pizzarelli really, who was — even though he's in his 90s — very viable and very active in the music scene in particular in New York,” he said. “I performed with him about a year or so ago. I found him to be just engaging in wonderful gentlemen.”
“And also, last one to mention: the great jazz trumpeter who was a protege of Miles Davis, Wallace Roney,” he said. “This guy was you know, he has a medical condition to set but he was only in his 50s. And this virus took him.”
Wilkins is still recovering, and continues his work on an upcoming album — expected to release this Summer. One song in particular has provided inspiration for his recovery And his songwriting.
“One of the one of the slogans I've used is, ‘Now that I've been recovering from this, I've been going from baby steps to the giant steps.’”
This weekend, he took another giant step: picking up his trombone for the first time in more than a month.
And he chose his first song carefully. When he left the hospital, the nation was in turmoil over racial injustice and police brutality — again.
“I mean, I grew up in the 60s. I remember the civil rights wars. I remember the civil rights marches. I remember seeing live television of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others, speaking out against racial inequality — to speak out against racism — and they were killed,” he said.
“That's kind of frightening. But the thing is: it just leads once again to the fact that if we don't stand up, if we don't say something and we don't call it out, then we are being complicit to this happening over and over and over again.”
He played “Lift Every Voice And Sing.”
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