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The Reno Jazz Orchestra Thrives Even During the Pandemic

By Dallas Smith, RJO saxophonist and Board President

For readers who may be unfamiliar with the RJO, the Reno Jazz Orchestra is Northern Nevada’s premiere big band, in existence for over two decades and featuring some of Northern Nevada’s best jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has presented the RJO from performing live since the beginning of the pandemic. This article will review how the RJO has continued to function in the absence of live concert performances.

The most ambitious project undertaken by the RJO has been recording a new album. We had been scheduled to perform a concert tribute to the group Earth Wind & Fire in 2020 as part of Artown as well as at Sand Harbor. We fervently hope to be able to perform these concerts this coming summer, assuming the virus is under control. Our music director Chuck Reider proposed that we produce an Earth Wind & Fire tribute album which we can offer for sale at our future concerts. Producing the album has taken longer than it would have under normal conditions, but it is nearing completion and sounds great!

It was a challenge to observe the necessary Covid precautions during the recording process. First, rehearsals were conducted by sections rather than the normal rehearsals which would have included the whole ensemble. The first requirement was that all members of the band produce a recent negative Covid test certificate. I participated as a member of the saxophone section. We rehearsed separated from each other by at least six feet, spaced across the whole stage of our concert/rehearsal hall at 124 W. Taylor St., which is shared with Good Luck Macbeth Theater. This rehearsal protocol was practiced by the brass and rhythm sections in rehearsals as well.

Similar protocols were followed during the recording sessions at Tanglewood Studios. Under Chuck’s direction, the rhythm section first recorded all the tunes, followed by saxophone and brass sectional recording sessions. Only when the band’s tracks were completed were the vocalists able to rehearse and record their tracks. The final result is impressive. We are proud to have been able to produce an excellent album during these times of sheltering-in-place. We send a special shout-out to Tanglewood Studios engineer Michael Eardley for his excellent engineering expertise and efforts far beyond those required to produce an album under normal times.

In addition to producing our new album, the RJO is sponsoring monthly online concerts. The first concerts occurred during December and featured holiday music performed by three different groups performing in a live web broadcast on two consecutive days. The RJO plans to present monthly web concerts until we can perform live in concert again. Who knows? We may continue our monthly online feature concerts even beyond the current pandemic. After all, a consistent web presence serves the RJO and our audience. We will all become Zoom virtuosos due to Covid.

Education has been severely disrupted by Covid. But thanks to the internet, the RJO was able to conduct our annual Jazz in the Schools event online. Two nationally respected jazz clinicians provided instruction and feedback to six participating schools. It is vitally important that we sustain the music programs which serve young musicians who will comprise the next generation of jazz musicians. A special shout-out goes to Dr. Andrew Heglund, UNR percussion professor and RJO member.

Select members of the RJO offer a mentor program to local schools. There are currently five schools that will participate in the program which will run from March through May. The sessions will consist of group and individual Zoom sessions led by the RJO mentors. Additionally, there is a video library produced by RJO members presenting instruction in various aspects of jazz improvisation and performance practices. A special shout-out goes to the mentors as well as Nichole Heglund, the RJO’s education coordinator.

In conclusion, the Covid-19 virus pandemic has disrupted all aspects of music performance and education. The Reno Jazz Orchestra is proud to continue our work under difficult conditions. It is the RJO’s mission to promote the highest quality of jazz through our concerts while promoting the education of the next generation of jazz musicians. Jazz has been called "America’s classical music." We invite you to support the Reno Jazz Orchestra in its mission, while enjoying the best big band music to be heard in Northern Nevada.

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