by Chuck Reider
This month’s column introduces you to two Reno jazz artists, trumpeter Dickie Mills and saxophonist Chris Casaceli. Mills recently turned 90 and has been a Reno jazz stalwart since the 1950s and Casaceli is joining the professional music community after recently graduating from the University of Oregon.
Growing up in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights district, Mills found jazz through the recordings of alto saxophone legend Charlie Parker at the age of seventeen. This began a sixty-year plus jazz career. The beginning was a bit rocky however. It was near the end of World War II and Mills was attending Balboa High School. He was one of three student trumpeters who played to the colors, a flag raising every morning with the student body in attendance. One fateful morning one of the trumpeters “clammed” a note. Musicians’ affectionately call a missed note a clam. This started the giggles among the trumpeters and one by one they stopped playing causing the Principal to race out screaming “treason”. Mills’ career at Balboa came to an abrupt end and he completed his studies at Mission High School. Undaunted he attended San Francisco State for two years until the jazz lifestyle lured him away and into a career of music. It was the 1950s and Mills was scuffling to make ends meet in San Francisco, so when his friend Rudy Salvini offered him a summer job playing in Reno he instantly accepted.
His first steady gig was at the Riverside where greats such as Sammy Davis got their start. He was a member of the Golden Hotel band and was at the bar at 7 am (part of the jazz lifestyle!) April 3, 1962 when the fire broke out that destroyed the hotel and killed six people. In 1963 he joined the John Ascuaga's Nugget band for the opening of the casino’s Circus Room (now the Celebrity Showroom). He was there opening night when elephants Bertha and Tina gave their first performance. I didn’t know this, but Mills told me the first Tina, on that opening night fell off the stage and into the audience. A second Tina was recruited to take the place of the first.
Mills’ wife had been saving money all this time to tour Europe so in 1965 with enough money in the bank they boarded the Queen Mary and set up residence in Paris. Mills quickly got bored with museums so one day he grabbed his trumpet and looked for a jazz club. That day he found the Chameleon Club and spent the whole day there sitting in with the band. The next morning Mills got a call from pianist Andre Renaud to record a movie soundtrack. He had some gigs on the Belgian coast that summer and came back to Paris where he joined the great Billy Byers to record “Jazz on the Left Bank”. When the money ran out, they came back to Reno and Mills worked in the showrooms until the call of Europe took them back to Copenhagen where he and the “US Danes band” made several recordings for the Danish Radio. After gigging for two years it was time for the family to come back home to Reno.
In 1969 he joined the Harrah’s Reno showroom orchestra where he stayed until 1990’s when showroom work became weekends only and eventually stopped all together. I am proud to say I was on the initial Reno Jazz Orchestra roster with Mills when we played the RJO’s first date February 17th 1997 at the Continental Lodge. You can hear him solo on our first CD “The Reno Jazz Orchestra 2000”.
Chris Casaceli grew up in Reno and found jazz at a “Zone Concert” where elementary, middle, and high school bands of that zone perform. As a 6th grader he heard the Swope Middle School jazz band, under the direction of Nichole Heglund, and the Reno High School jazz band, under the direction of Cody Forcier.
He was immediately taken by improvisation, the idea that you don’t have to play the notes on the page. Music on the page can be daunting as you need to be very precise to play with the ensemble. The thought of having a “clean slate” for every solo and by being surprised by the outcome excited him.
Under the tutelage of private instructor Jonathan Phillips his jazz world blossomed. When Phillips introduced him to Michael Brecker’s recording of “Midnight Voyage” he listened to it repeatedly to learn it by ear, no pages required! From there it was listening to and learning about other greats such as Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker.
As a high school freshman, he auditioned and won a sax chair with the Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO), which was one of his goals. The other was to win a chair in the All State Jazz Band, which he did twice. He also was thrilled to be in the Wooster High School music program under the direction of Phillips. Playing both in the full jazz band and small Wooster jazz combo was great fun collaborating with friends and composing original songs. Casaceli performed at the Reno Jazz Festival six years as a part of his school’s ensembles. He and his friends would plan for a whole day of jazz and arrive early to hear the 7am concerts.
College was the next part of the plan, but Casaceli had not considered jazz studies. Instead he was thinking film and video arts, his other passion, until UNR jazz studies instructors Larry Engstrom and Peter Epstein suggested jazz. A great suggestion it was as Casaceli received a full scholarship to study jazz at the University of Oregon. He chose Oregon as director Steve Owen really impressed him with his jazz knowledge and his ability to bring out the best in student musicians. At Oregon his jazz development expanded exponentially. He began fastidiously transcribing solos from the likes of bebopper Sonny Stitt to Dixieland great Louis Armstrong. It was his dorm roommate that opened up a whole new music world to him, hip hop. His roommate was studying hip hop and when they began to share music they discovered some very interesting connections. Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove produced a Qtip CD and NAS sampled beats from jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. His capstone event at Oregon was a European tour with the big band playing at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival along with several other venues.
After graduation Casaceli came back home to Reno to play jazz with friends in a thriving jazz community. He loves opportunities like those offered at the Laughing Planet where you can sit in and jam with friends, UNR students, and the UNR jazz faculty. He continues to compose material, most times a solitary endeavor, and balances that with playing live in clubs. His musical goal is to fuse jazz, and all its history, to hip hop and other contemporary music styles. He has a partner in a current recording project, his brother Will. Will Casaceli is a gifted trumpet player and pianist who will be heading off to college next year. I am eager to hear their joint effort when it comes out. I am pleased to note Casaceli has not given up on his passion for film and video as he is the head of visual media at Tanglewood Studios. Owners Michael and Catharine Eardley recognized the talent and drive he possesses and have taken him under their wing. FYI, Casaceli will be joining the RJO for our Reno Jazz Festival performance 4/27 and our Northern Nevada HOPES fundraiser 4/30.
Jazz is a lifetime adventure and it was a joy to hear Mills’ and Casaceli’s journeys and then sharing them with you.
Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra