by Dallas Smith, guest author
Because I am filling in for my good friend, monthly columnist Chuck Reider, let me introduce myself. My name is Dallas Smith. I’ve resided in Reno with my wife, Susan Mazer, since 1994. I am a woodwinds player (flute, clarinet, and saxophone) and a longtime member of the Reno Jazz Orchestra. During my several decades of living in Reno, I’ve worked in practically every capacity available to a professional musician; from concerts and clubs, to weddings and parties, to casino conventions, and visiting theatrical shows. I am in the ninth year of producing the weekly program Saturday Night Jazz on Reno Public Radio’s KNCJ with my co-producers Scot and Graham Marshall. This column is not about me. I just want to establish the basis for my following assessment of our local music scene.
In my experience, Reno has a musical community that is of a quality far above what one might otherwise expect from a similar community of our size. We have two excellent symphony orchestras, the Reno Philharmonic and the Reno Chamber Orchestra. We have two excellent ballet companies, the Sierra Nevada Ballet and the A.V.A. Ballet Theater. We have the Reno Jazz Orchestra (big band). We have both classical and jazz ensembles at UNR who perform at UNR and around our community. We have the UNR Performing Arts Series, which features renowned artists, as well as the Apex concert series, which features UNR faculty members with guest performers. We have the Classical Tahoe summer concert series, which also encompasses the Brubeck Jazz Summit. We have city-sponsored festivals that attract tourists and locals by presenting famous touring groups. There are many concerts sponsored by our local casinos as well as the Pioneer Theater concert series. Last but not least, Reno’s thriving independent theaters incorporate local musicians in many of their productions.
Please forgive me if I omitted any other worthy organizations. The rich variety of artistic offerings means that the public has multiple events to choose from every week of the year. So Such a rich variety of performances are generally only available in larger metropolitan areas. I have lived in several communities of sizes similar to Reno. None of them offered as many opportunities to attend such a variety of high quality performances as Reno does.
Why is this? One factor that contributed strongly to our rich community of musicians was the “Casino Golden Age.” Reno musicians regularly accompanied visiting guest artists in the casinos’ showrooms.
But times changed, and the music industry changed. Nevada lost its monopoly on casinos. Touring artists found more performance opportunities apart from Las Vegas and Reno. Casino performers no longer required full orchestras or big bands to accompany them as they had in the past. Synthesizers replaced many live musicians, particularly string players. And perhaps worst of all was the failed musicians’ strike in Las Vegas in the 1980s, which resulted in the cancellation of many jobs previously performed by the musicians working in the casino shows in Las Vegas and Reno. Many of the previously employed musicians remained Reno residents. Most Reno musicians diversified their careers by working in some other job/professions. Many of them continue to perform in the organizations listed above while teaching private lessors or in schools, or by finding other occupations to supplement incomes from their musical careers.
There is another factor which I will name “the small town quality of Reno’s musical community” in our Biggest Little City. The Reno music community is close-knit. That means that generally “everyone knows everybody.” To thrive as a musician in our relatively small city requires a level of personal connection absent in larger metropolitan areas. Having previously pursued my musical career in the Bay Area, as well as comparing my experiences with musician friends who work in the Los Angeles area, I found the professional environment in LA and the Bay Area to be much more impersonal and competitive than in Reno. Playing a job/gig in those cities was much more stressful than in Reno. The artistic level may have been very high. But people were stressed by the much higher cost of living, having to travel much longer distances to gigs, as well as fighting traffic and parking challenges. People didn’t necessarily know the other members of the ensembles with which they’re hired to play. We were musical strangers just trying to do our jobs under stressful circumstances, as compared with gigs in Reno where the musicians are happy to have the opportunity to work with their friends again.
From what I’ve written above, I have made it clear that I find it much more pleasurable to work as a musician in Reno than in the previous cities where I’ve lived. But that doesn’t mean that it is easy to be a professional musician in Reno or anywhere else. There are not enough performance opportunities for every musician to work as much as they would like. This means that it is an economic challenge to support oneself as a musician. The best paying gigs occur during the holiday seasons or when performing for conventions, weddings, or backing visiting out-of-town artists. There are no consistent full-time high-paying musical performance jobs in Reno.
In conclusion, I invite all readers to celebrate with me the outstanding local musicians and the many concerts and recitals that are offered. Be aware that musicians are required to polish their skills over many years in order to make what is very difficult look easy. The excellent variety of musical offerings in Reno is part of what makes this biggest little city a great place to live. Please support local musicians by attending their performances, purchasing their recordings, hiring them to teach music to your kids, and being mindful of the discipline, diligence, and skill that are necessary to create a successful performance. Being aware of musicians’ challenges will enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of every concert you attend.
I look forward to meeting you there.