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Planting the Seeds of Jazz

by Churck Reider

Today jazz education is on the agenda. One story is about three days in February and the other thirty-four years in the making. February 11th- 13th the Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) will host our annual Jazz in the Schools (JITS). JITS Director Andy Heglund had to be creative this year to build an all online program. Typically, we invite all WCSD middle and high school jazz bands to come to UNR for student performances and clinics for a full day of student jazz. Usually, three hundred students attend and perform but this is not a usual year. Heglund has enlisted Kyle Englehardt who directs the award-winning Iowan Cedar Falls High School Jazz Band and award winning composer/performer/educator Mike Conrad currently teaches jazz performance and studies at the University of Northern Iowa. Each will lead four clinics to eight total school jazz bands live online Thursday and Friday. Saturday morning they will lead two band director clinics covering topics such as how to keep students motivated while at home, purposeful listening and practicing, and approaches to teach middle school students how to improvise. Saturday afternoon is an online concert featuring RJO trumpeter Julien Knowles’ quintet performing his original compositions. The quintet will play thirty minutes, will break to answer questions from the participating students, and then finish with another thirty-minute performance. We can’t invite you to attend in person but, we are planning to make most of these sessions available online to all of you. Check out our website for details as they come available so you can join the Zoom.

Thirty-four years ago Larry Engstrom planted a “jazz” seed at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR) which has grown to bear fruit for all of us to enjoy. Collegiate teaching started for him at North Texas State as a graduate assistant where he taught numerous classes such as jazz band, the trumpet choir, and jazz history. His first full time university gig was in Alaska where he taught for three years. From there a year at Humboldt State University and then on to UNR in 1987.

Engstrom moved to Reno with the expectation of being UNR’s trumpet instructor, but at his interview the department chair asked if he would also rehearse the jazz band which at the time was the only jazz class offered. Engstrom began adding classes such as jazz improvisation, jazz history, and jazz arrangement, all of which he taught. He then took the reins of the Reno Jazz Festival as director in 1991, a position he held for twenty-five years. The festival was personal to him as he says, “As a high school student, coming to the Reno jazz Festival was one of the highlights of the year. We came all 4 years, so I got to see some great musicians and attend valuable workshops. Just as important for a kid that age was seeing other high schools perform. It really opened my eyes as to what was possible at that age.” He also states “Serving as director of the festival for 25 years has provided me with some of the most meaningful memories of my life. The opportunity to befriend and interact with 50-60 amazingly talented guest artists and adjudicator/clinicians from all over the United States each and every year was a joy and a privilege.” During his tenure attendance grew from sixty school bands to over three hundred. As the jazz program grew he was able to bring on additional staff who are the basis for the jazz faculty group “The Collective”.

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Engstrom was recruited to become Chair of the music department in 2001. Though at first reluctant to move into administration, he was finally convinced by Dean Robert Mead to do so. In 2004, he accepted an offer to become the founding director of the new UNR School of the Arts, a job that presented a whole new set of challenges requiring creative solutions. First was the seventy-hour work weeks! Second was to expect the unexpected. Each workday he would have an agenda in his mind to accomplish which would immediately be side-track with the need to work with staff to resolve issues as they came through the door. Engstrom had a vision for an additional school of the arts building to accommodate increasing student enrollment. He began the planning and fundraising process in 2005 and all was moving forward until the recession of 2008 when the state could no longer afford to fund fifty percent of the project. Back to square one. Now UNR had to raise one hundred percent of the money. Engstrom credits then UNR President Marc Johnson for taking the lead in completing the fundraising effort when the economy began to recover in 2014-2015. Construction began June 2017 and the new building, The University Arts Building, opened February 22nd , 2019. Though the building’s original design had to be downsized to meet the new budget it is a beautiful, state of the art facility. It houses a 287-seat recital hall, museum of art, fabrication lab, electroacoustic composition lab, soundproof rehearsal spaces, music practice rooms, faculty office spaces and recording studio. Fourteen years in the making! Engstrom decided to step back from administration in 2017 but stayed on the building committee until it opened in 2019. This was a beginning of the “phasing in” of his retirement. For two years he taught jazz courses one semester a year until his retirement this fall.

During his thirty-four years at UNR in both teaching and administration Engstrom was a major force growing the arts programs and guiding it into the future he saw way back in 1987. During that time jazz has changed (as it does) and the UNR jazz program reflects that change. The 1987 jazz “definition” is no longer true. Today jazz is less about jazz standards (although they still teach them) and more about exploring new forms of expression that incorporate ideas/approaches from other musical genres and non-western world music. He also believes composing has become a bigger part of the jazz program and that it helps inform the musician’s playing. He is thrilled the UNR jazz program is incorporating these new concepts into the program. During his tenure, the music department faculty grew from fourteen to thirty and the University Arts Building was completed. He was awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award acknowledging his accomplishments. Key to success? Engstrom simply says he just was not afraid to ask for more resources.

Now retired he has not decided what is next. Right now he is enjoying time with his family, especially the grandchildren and has plans to travel with his wife Kris. He does sit at the piano and improvise songs, mostly ballads, as he needs to tune up his piano “chops”. Maybe down the road take on composing.

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I failed to mention that he is also a gifted trumpet player (did I bury the lead?) who you can hear on several UNR faculty Collective recordings and is featured on the RJO’s “Jazz Alive” recording.

I want to personally thank him for his hard work because the RJO has benefitted from all the gifted musicians who come to UNR to study jazz.

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

Larry Engstrom featured with the Reno Jazz Orchestra – My Ideal

Larry Engstrom with the UNR’s jazz faculty quintet The Collective

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