The Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) turned twenty-one this year. Thank you northern Nevada for believing in our mission and supporting us all these years. In 1997 we started performing at the Continental Lodge on the corner of Virginia Street and Plumb Lane to standing room crowds. Just three of the founding band remain, myself, trombonist Rich Lewis, and tenor saxophonist Jim Garaventa, but the spirit of the original band is still with us. It is a strong motivation to share our love of jazz and inspire the next generation of jazz musicians.
Looking back ten years to 2008 we performed eight times and held two one-day education events serving approximately 2,800 adults and 900 students. In 2017 we performed fifteen times and held four education events, three of which were multi-day events serving approximately 7,200 adults and 4,300 students.
So what’s different in education? Our annual Jazz in the Schools held in February was a one-day event in 2008 with five school jazz bands attending. Our recent Jazz in the Schools spanned four days with fifteen school jazz big bands participating as well as four jazz combos. Partnering with the Washoe County School District (WCSD) and the University of Nevada (UNR) we added a three-day in-service program for WCSD band directors to provide insight on teaching jazz. Three years ago we added a Sunday matinee featuring a legend of jazz to inspire WCSD students.
This concert, and all JIS events, are free to all participating students. UNR has been a wonderful JIS host providing great staff and venue. It is an opportunity for WCSD students to visit the campus and get a first-hand look at all that UNR has to offer. It is our supporters who make this happen! Thanks!!
In 2011 with a generous donation from Healing Healthcare Systems we began the spring Mentor Program. Instead of a one-day event, the RJO provides mentors to WCSD jazz bands and band directors to rehearse the band over the course of a semester. During that time our mentors coach the jazz band and work with the band director on jazz questions they have.
One objective is to bring more WCSD students to the Reno Jazz Festival. This festival is one of the premier student jazz festivals in the country where each band competes in its’ division. But, it is much much more than that. Students attend workshops led by great jazz artists and educators, hear amazing school bands from all over the country, and hang out with old jazz friends while meeting new ones.
The RJO has been honored to perform on Saturday afternoon for the past eighteen years. Our hope is the students can see that big band jazz extends past school and that one can take it as far as they wish. I performed at the Reno Jazz Festival both in high school and college lo these many years ago. These are experiences that can last a lifetime and the RJO wants to encourage as many WCSD students as possible to participate.
This spring we added our latest education program, the jazz workshop. Dr. Andy Heglund, our drummer and professor at UNR, noted that the mentor program and JIS provides students guidance on jazz interpretation and ensemble performance, but it does not provide a venue to learn and experience jazz improvisation. So, this spring we hosted our first jazz workshop specifically for improvisation which is truly the heartbeat of jazz. We hosted seven Saturday sessions where students learned the melody of a jazz standard and then how to improvise over the melody without any written material. All by ear. We also provided music theory and workshops on each instrument from a professional jazz musician. The capstone event had the students open for the RJO at our first Hall Concert (more later).
Our performance schedule has changed quite a bit since 2008 as well. We now have regular performances at The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and the Cargo Concert Hall at the Whitney Peak. Both wonderful partners to work with. This February we joined with the Good Luck Macbeth (GLM) theater company to rent the building that at one time housed the Reno Musicians’ Union. GLM has transformed the hall into a ninety-seat theater for their performances. We rehearse in the hall and will perform there three times a year. Our first “Hall” performance was in May and featured the music of our bassist Hans Halt.
We are thrilled with our community’s support and have developed plans to continue to grow both our education and performance programs. Since the RJO’s inception, our primary education goal has been to inspire students to learn jazz, love jazz, and continue to perform jazz in our community. Moving forward, we will expand our Mentor Program to include more schools, especially at-risk schools, and offer private lessons. Jazz in the Schools now is a full day of student band performances and in the near future we will need to add a second day to allow more schools to attend. Our jazz workshops will have both an introductory level and advanced level better suited to meet students’ potential for learning improvisation. This can lead to weekend student jam sessions at our new facility. A little further out we wish to tailor a middle school jazz concert and bring students to a theater to experience jazz first hand, probably for the first time.
Our next step for our performance programming will bring nationally recognized jazz artists two times a year to share the stage with us at a larger venue. It is time for a new RJO CD and the plan is to record a full CD of original compositions and arrangements featuring the band and our favorite local vocalists. It is also time for the RJO to visit other Nevada communities and both perform and provide student jazz seminars. Organizing such visits for a seventeen-piece orchestra is no small task, but as we grow we plan to be up to the challenge.
Jazz is one of America’s original artforms and it is both an honor and pleasure to live in a community that supports live music. As Duke Ellington often said to his audiences, “We Love You Madly” and indeed we do!
Chuck Reider is the Reno Jazz Orchestra Music Director