Over the last year I have been highlighting Reno’s jazz community from jazz professionals to student big band jazz to the Reno Jazz Festival. Today’s article is about the Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) because this year we are twenty years old. Those in the orchestra who have been a part since its inception in 1997 have been privileged to provide our community great big band performances. We are honored that our community has been there to support us. Thank you Reno, let’s do twenty more! But first let me give you a little of our past.
By 1997 the showrooms no longer employed full-time showroom orchestras, but most of us who worked all those great shows decided to keep Reno our home. With a wealth of great talent still here co-founders Jack Caudill and Tony Savage came up with the idea to invite the best of the best to become the Reno Jazz Orchestra and I was fortunate to be one of those asked. Within a year Jack had us registered as a non-profit and our mission to serve northern Nevada began. We started with a simple idea, like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland saying “Hey, let’s put on a show”. We wanted to share the music of the masters like Duke Ellington as well as perform new material from up and coming masters like Eric Richards. We also wanted to share our love of jazz with the next generation(s) of student musicians and encourage them to experience jazz. None of us had non-profit experience but our passion for big band jazz motivated us to learn.
Our first performances were at the Continental Lounge at the corner of Plumb and Virginia Streets and the place was packed with enthusiastic jazz aficionados who began to spread the word. Over our twenty years we brought jazz greats to Reno to perform with the RJO. Phil Woods, Patti Austin, Russ Ferrante, Bob Mintzer, and Bobby Caldwell just to name a few. We also produced shows like Such Sweet Thunder the music of Duke Ellington and the words of William Shakespeare; At the Crossroads a musical tribute to Carlos Santana; and our 2016 gospel Christmas featuring Pat Ester’s ten voice gospel choir. We produced four CDs starting with Reno Jazz Orchestra 2000 to our most recent released in 2015 Bring Me the Funk of James Brown. I can’t thank the band, board, staff, volunteers, and sponsors enough for all we have accomplished.
Each member of the RJO can tell you their story of why jazz education is important. Here is mine. I moved to Reno in 1979 at the age of 25 to play trombone in the showrooms. For ten years I was the youngest musician in the band and it looked to me my generation would be the last to play the trombone. During that time synthesizers became popular and their technology became advanced enough to imitate all the instruments. You could have a whole orchestra on your computer, so why ask a trombone player to even show up? That motivates me to this day to keep live jazz right here in Reno. In 2000 the RJO began our education program with a modest effort. We would visit a high school for an afternoon, work with the school jazz band and play a short concert. During that time we traveled to Fallon, Carson City, and Virginia City to reach beyond Reno. We then invited schools to come to a central location to perform and RJO members would provide feedback on how to improve their jazz styling. That was the start of Jazz in the Schools. Three or four schools would participate. By 2008 eight schools were participating and UNR’s Nightingale Hall became the home of Jazz in the Schools. This year we had fifteen school bands and three jazz combos. 2015 we added a concert featuring a jazz great where we offer free tickets to all the students participating in Jazz in the Schools so they can experience world class jazz. This year our guest artist was the great Tom Scott.
With a generous gift from the owners of Healing Healthcare Systems we piloted our Mentor Program in 2011. RJO musicians visit a select number of schools to work with them from January to April to help prepare them to perform at the Reno Jazz Festival. This program has expanded to a fall and spring program, resulting in more Washoe County schools competing in the Reno Jazz Festival.
OK, what’s next? I’m so glad you asked. We are working towards a six-concert season with RJO backing national jazz artists and three additional concerts featuring just the artistry of the RJO. It’s time for us to commission composers to write specifically for the RJO. We will grow our education program by expanding our Mentor Program to more schools. We will emphasize jazz improvisation in a small combo setting and continue in-service training for Washoe County School District band directors. We also plan on providing jazz education through private lessons, improvisation workshops and shared performances with RJO musicians. Our goal is to have all of this in place by 2020.
I attended a week long non-profit management class recently and the instructor asked us to share how our non-profit keeps us motivated. I can say there is no better place on earth than to conduct the RJO. Having a front row “seat” hearing great musicians performing and then turning around and seeing the audience on their feet clapping is an experience one never forgets. I am the master of ceremonies at Jazz in the Schools each year where I get to hear every school perform. The growth of jazz performance amazes me each year as the bar gets a bit higher. Middle schools this year sounded as good as high school performances a few years ago. Maybe the trombone will stick around a few more years.
Lastly, a shout out to founding members who still play with the band- Mark Curry, Terry Burns, Joe Cadena, Leonard Neidhold, Rich Lewis, Jim Garaventa, and Doug Coomler… thanks for the 20 let’s do 20 more!