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The Art of Jazz in the time of Social Distancing

by Chuck Reider

We are all coping with Covid-19 as best we can so I thought today I would share how three local musicians are keeping jazz and more importantly our spirits alive and well. Let’s start with Dallas Smith.

Multi-instrumentalist Smith has been a professional musician as long as I have (that’s a long time…), played in the showrooms and has performed with his harpist wife Susan Mazer as long as I have known them (not quite as long a time). They founded Healing Healthcare Systems, but that is a story for a different day. They both do a lot of traveling and India is one of the regular stops where they have met, bonded, and performed with many Indian musicians. At one of those performances last year their friend Manish Savant shared the concert on Facebook Live. Savant has been in artist management for twenty years and instituted a weekly Facebook concert promoting artists and giving them a chance to get their name out in the world. It seemed to Smith that Indian musicians are much more active on Facebook Live. This inspired Smith to do the same during the shelter in place pandemic restrictions. When they asked their employees at Healing Healthcare to work from home during this time, he and Mazer performed a concert just for staff online using Microsoft Teams. Earlier this year they performed for a bay area Synagogue attended by many of Mazer’s family. This time Facebook Live. April 6 th at 9:30pm (10am Indian time) they turned on Facebook and performed for their Indian friends. Smith featured the Indian bamboo flute on a couple of tunes. Each of these concerts runs about thirty minutes. Smith is working with his good friend and For the Love of Jazz (FTLOJ) President Scot Marshall to encourage local jazz musicians to perform online. They both host a Saturday evening jazz program on KNCJ as well the Reno Little Theater once a month jazz concerts. When the theater closed as a result of the pandemic they began to reach out to local jazz artists to perform online. Currently they are working with pianist Erika Paul to produce a Saturday noontime concert so Paul’s European friends can listen in.

Bassist Hans Halt is a jazz instructor at UNR and when the university was closed all classes had to move to the internet. Lecturing on Zoom, though not preferable, is feasible. However, teaching jazz combo improvisation classes is truly a challenge. There is this thing called latency which means there is a slight delay from the time one musician plays a note and the others hear it through Zoom or other similar applications. So synchronous activities like live music are not practical. Halt relies on asynchronous teaching, meaning students prerecord a solo send it to him to review and comment. Sometimes Halt will share the solos. The individual combo classes have become more of a jazz theory class and the Friday class where all the combos attend is now a Zoom session. Halt will assign a video for the students to watch and then discuss at the Friday meeting. The youtube video “Ramblin Boy” about bassist Charlie Haden was a recent assignment. Looking for something to do? Check it out. He notes it is a challenge keeping students motivated and logging in for class but Halt tries to keep a regular routine. He does note that private lessons work OK on Zoom. In fact, many music teachers have been using online lessons for a while now. Halt is looking at online applications that might provide the opportunity to play live with other musicians online. He has run across JamKazam which touts that ability, but Halt is still trying to work out the bugs using JamKazam and beat that latency thing.

Jim Albrecht is the trombone instructor at UNR and principal trombonist with the Reno Philharmonic. I saw a video of the Reno Phil’s low brass perform “Spread Joy – Song for Health” he produced and posted on Facebook. Though not jazz composition I had to ask him how he did it. The composer Steven Verhelst describes it as an "appreciation song for our health care and public service workers at the forefront of the corona pandemic." Having the musicians play live over the internet as noted previously was not an option so Albrecht recorded all four parts and emailed that and the written parts to his compadres. They played along and recorded their performance (audio and video) and emailed them back to Albrecht who mixed the four audio parts and synced the video. Why not have all four just record their part with a click track? Intonation is the answer. Musicians constantly adjust pitch during a performance to play in tune with the other performers. Without that constant, immediate feedback it is impossible to play in tune. Check out this performance on the Reno Phil website.

The RJO moved our jazz improvisation workshop for middle and high school students from the Good Luck Macbeth theater to online. Students were able to meet for the first meeting March 14 at the theater, but since then Director Dylan Coleman-Tunstall has spent a lot of time creating online resources for our students. Now they meet using Zoom and I had a chance to sit in to see how things were going. As Halt noted, playing as a group does not work so Coleman talks theory, has individual students play melodies they are writing, with a little ear training in the mix. The students miss playing as a group, much like all of us, but were engaged with Coleman during the sessions.

Having spent the article talking online I have to mention the RJO has two concerts at the Goodluck Macbeth Theater 5/30 and 5/31. These are the concerts where the jazz workshop students open the show which is always a treat for me. Fingers crossed all will be good by then. We miss you all and we miss performing with our fellow musicians. A quick bit of humor… as a trombone player I have been practicing social distancing for over forty years (insert rimshot here). Stay safe and hope to see you all soon.

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