Jazz is in the moment and each soloist tells their story through their improvised solo. Every generation of jazz musicians develops their own “voice” to tell their story bringing a brand new day keeping jazz vibrant and alive. With that in mind I want to introduce three jazz educators who are helping students find that voice and propel jazz into new frontiers. The Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO), through our generous sponsors, provide a jazz education program at no cost to participating students or schools.
Let's start with Jonathan Phillips who performs with the RJO and is one of our jazz mentors working with school jazz bands. Jonathan grew up in Elk Grove and remembers the first time he found jazz (or did jazz find him?). As a 5th grader his family took him to see smooth jazz saxophonist Richard Elliot. Jonathan was bored and went off to play in the grass until he heard Richard perform “When a Man Loves Woman”. He knew that tune and loved it, so it stopped him in his tracks and he had to come back to hear more. That was when he knew he wanted to play jazz. It was not until 7th grade when he was big enough to carry a tenor saxophone back and forth to school his music career began. The next moment was hearing Maceo Parker, James Brown’s famous saxophone sideman. This inspired him to listen to other saxophonists like Michael Brecker. However, it was not until 1997 when his high school band competed at the Reno Jazz Festival was he inspired to “woodshed” (jazz term for practicing) four hours a day. The experience of hearing so many great jazz musicians and student musicians inspired him to focus on music and convinced him to study music at UNR. His love of jazz directed him toward music education.
Jonathan, until last year, was the Band Director at Wooster High School and is now teaching elementary school. The RJO is fortunate he is one of our mentors. This year he worked with Billinghurst and Depoali Middle Schools. His time with the students provided the students the sense of how to play musically within the jazz idiom. How do you swing the notes? First, listen to a lot of swing jazz and he would have them “swing” scales and then sing their parts. He taught them how to rehearse and how to play in a section, what to listen for, and when it is important for their part to be heard. He learned something new as well. He had not worked with middle school students before and he was pleasantly surprised that there is not much of a gap between middle and high school. The students are ready to play musically, not just push down the right key. His favorite moment was at Depoali MS when he picked up a trumpet and showed the first trumpet a strong trumpet sound and how to breathe to get that sound. The whole section got stronger. In fact, that first trumpet player garnered the top middle school trumpet player award at this year’s Reno Jazz Festival. Nice!
Next I spoke with Depoali Middle School Band Director Dan Barthel. Dan grew up in Reno and was introduced to jazz by his Sparks High School Band Director Mike Delage. Dan was a flute player, but he learned the trombone so he could play in the jazz band. He enjoyed going to jazz concerts, especially the Reno Jazz Festival and UNR jazz ensemble. It was his music teachers Mary Ann Lazzari and Earline McGrannahan who inspired him to make music his career. He followed that path to UNR where he earned a bachelors and then masters degree in music education. He started his teaching career at Hug High School and has been at Depoali eight years where today he has two jazz bands with about twenty-six students each.
How did the mentor program help his students? Dan says it was Jonathan Phillips’ knowledge of jazz, his insistence of doing it right, and knowing how to have fun during rehearsal time. The students connected with that approach and they began to swing and not just play the notes. What did Dan learn? Build to the peak of a musical phrase, drum fill ideas and how to teach saxophone students to add inflection into their playing. The results? They competed in the Reno Jazz Festival this year and the number one band received all one (superior) ratings and the number two band received two one ratings and one two rating! His students watched other bands perform and stayed to see the evening performance by Joshua Redman and Bad Plus. Dan encourages all bands that come to the festival to compete to make a schedule and plan to see as many other bands as they can. Dan is a voracious jazz learner and takes any opportunity to add jazz tools to his music toolbox.
James Hayes, the Wooster High School Band Director, is new to Reno and is just finishing his first year teaching here. He grew up in New Jersey and first experienced jazz listening to Newark New Jersey’s WBGO radio. He is a guitarist and studied at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. His mentor Dr. Joshua Davis inspired him to dig deeper into jazz.
Trumpeter Ben Caiazza, a UNR student in the jazz studies master program, was one of his mentors and Ben focused on the brass section (trumpets and trombones). He gave them confidence by showing how to get a big round, full sound. Saxophonist Jim Garaventa, an RJO founding member, also mentored the band. He showed the students a little bit of everything; jazz theory, tips on improvisation, and listened while James rehearsed the band to provide rehearsal tips. James learned how to create an environment of improvisation where everyone can be successful and participate, work with the rhythm section so the bass and drums are locked in. James feels the biggest result was the quality and quantity of sound that comes from confidence playing your instrument. His students really appreciated having the mentors work with the band.
So this was just a glimpse of all that is happening in Reno to develop our students’ jazz “voices”. I always look forward to what that next voice will sound like and how jazz receives it. Our jazz educators are fostering a brand new day of jazz and I can’t wait to see that sunrise. Thank you E.L. Cord Foundation, Healing Healthcare Systems, the City of Reno, the Nevada Arts Council and all our private donors. You all make the magic happen with your support.