The Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) hosted our annual Jazz in the Schools last month. It was a full day of student performances and clinics on Saturday 2/11 followed the next day by a memorable performance by sax great Tom Scott and the RJO. But if you are a young jazz musician with the desire to take the next step and maybe even play jazz professionally, what is your path? Every jazz generation must forge their own path to meet new challenges. So this article highlights three local musicians who created their path and are passionate about helping the next generation create theirs.
You can't have a very long discussion about Reno jazz without Larry Engstrom's name coming up. Larry is currently UNR's Director of the School of Arts where he administers the activities of the three arts departments: Music, Theater/Dance, and Art. However he moved to Reno to teach trumpet at UNR. During his interview in 1987 for the position, it became clear to Larry the music department chair Mike Cleveland wanted to re-invigorate the UNR jazz program. Mike invited Larry to rehearse the jazz band, which at the time was the only jazz class UNR had to offer. Fortunately for Reno, Mike offered and Larry accepted. Larry began adding classes such as jazz improvisation, jazz history, and jazz arrangement, all of which he taught. UNR's jazz program began to get national attention through performances of the big band and small combos at a variety of national festivals and competitions. Larry also took over the reins of the Reno Jazz Festival in 1991 and was instrumental in building attendance from 60 school bands to over 300 in 2016. The success of the jazz program clearly required additional staff so over time he hired Hans Halt (RJO bassist), sax instructor Frances Vanek, and percussion instructor Andy Heglund (RJO drummer). With the hiring of pianist David Ake the program was in full swing and the beginning of the UNR faculty jazz quintet known as the Collective. Peter Epstein is now the saxophone instructor, Adam Benjamin on piano, and the newest addition Ralph Alessi on trumpet.
Larry came from a family of musicians and took up the trumpet simply because both his father and older brother played trumpet. Like most of us he played in the school band and developed a love of jazz in middle school where he started trying to figure out jazz theory. He still remembers "the moment", the time when a musician knows that is what they are going to do for the rest of their life. His was listening to Miles Davis' performance of My Funny Valentine recorded 2/12/64 (Larry still remembers that date!). There he was with his trumpet teacher Ray Sasaki and friend Paul Shaghoian when it hit. And it never left…
Brian Landrus embraced jazz at a very young age in Reno and with support of his parents and grandparents he has never let go. In middle school his teacher Lani Oelrich recognized that thirst for jazz and introduced Brian to his first jazz instructor Frank Perry. It was at a lesson that Brian had his "moment" listening to Charlie Parker's recording of Yardbird Suite. Brian did not understand what improvisation meant, he thought Charlie Parker had written his solo down and practiced it. Frank said no it was not written down he just made it up, "like this". Frank picked up his alto sax and gave a demonstration. At that instant it clicked for Brian and that moment started him on a path he continues to travel to this day. The path started with a middle school combo that won a Reno Jazz Festival award, a scholarship to UNR, two masters degrees at the New England Conservatory of Music, world tours with Esperanza Spalding, performances with a host of jazz greats, and 9 self-produced CDs. The latest, original compositions with a studio orchestra. Brian is also an instructor at Rutgers and a PhD candidate there in classical composition. His mother recently shared with him one of his middle school diaries where he wrote "that by the time I am 30 I will be in New York City playing jazz". He moved there at the age of 27.
His advice to aspiring musicians? (1) Know every minute you are not practicing someone else is! (2) Focus on individuality of your jazz voice and don't compare yourself to other musicians.
Adam Benjamin moved to Reno three years ago to fill the jazz faculty piano position at UNR. He is currently UNR's Director of Jazz Studies and tours extensively and records with Kneebody. Though he began studying piano at an early age he came late to jazz, not until he went to college. He knew he did not want to be a classical musician because performances must stay in the lines, constrained to the notes on the page. His mind wanted to paint outside those lines. He auditioned at the Eastman School of Music and they heard potential that perhaps Adam was not even aware of. His "moment" was really over a period of a few weeks listening to and learning from the jazz instructors Ralph Alessi (currently UNR's jazz trumpet instructor) and pianist Michael Cain. They were amazingly talented and witty and Adam wanted to be a part of that community. Within a year, he had met Ben Wendel and Shane Endsley and began playing with them. He still does, they are his band mates in Kneebody.
Adam is proud to be a part of one of the strongest jazz programs in the country, all the instructors are nationally recognized and attract students from all over the country. He enjoys the openness and rigor of jazz study at the collegiate level. The program is rooted in jazz tradition, but the faculty philosophy is to mentor students and encourage them to find their voice.
Larry, Brian, and Adam know jazz is great for our community. Go find a local club with jazz and you will hear their former students and current UNR students creating something new and perhaps they will share their moment with you as they follow their path. It truly will be magic.