Looking for sax?
Our writer samples Reno’s flourishing jazz scene
If you’re looking for great jazz in Northern Nevada, there are several places to enjoy the thrill and finesse of the live performance. Plenty of Reno clubs specialize in this uniquely American art form. Downtown Reno can yield many satisfying evenings for fans with esoteric musical tastes.
Enoteca Jazz Lounge
The Siena converted its below-ground Wine Cellar to a jazz-only room four years ago. The lounge offers comfortable seating and smoke-free environs that enhance the jazz-club ambience. Such noted players as Billy Slais (sax), Carlo Driggs (vocals), Chuck Hughes (drums) and Scot Marshall (bass) frequent the Enoteca. The wine-cellar atmosphere and extensive menu of fine wines are features most other clubs lack. Enoteca, 1 S. Lake St., rarely sports large crowds and is often called “Reno’s Best Kept Secret.”
“All of us who make a living at music are extremely thankful for the Siena’s maintaining Enoteca as a jazz room,” said Mick Valentino, perhaps Reno’s most popular jazz guitarist, “because a jazz-only gig isn’t all that common these days.” Valentino worked many years in jazz and funk bands before playing with the Tommy Bell Band in Reno from 1984 to 2000.
Saxophone artist Billy Slais serves as Siena’s booking agent and coordinates talent for various clubs around town. He often combines innovative styles of jazz talent, juxtaposing various artists to create improvisational magic. Slais played on five albums with Elvin Bishop and continues contract work as a studio player.
“Siena and EJ’s take great care of musicians,” Slais said, “and their support of the jazz community here is more appreciated than I can say!”
EJ’s Jazz Café
Only seven months after opening, EJ’s Jazz Café takes the crown as Reno’s most popular all-jazz club. Found at 17 S. Virginia St. on the ground floor of the Riverside, the café specializes in Cajun cuisine and features a high ceiling that gives the club superb acoustics. The friendly groove of the employees waiting tables and working the bar provides an upbeat ambience.
EJ’s is owned and managed by Ernest and Judy Gardner. Judy brings a strong background in marketing and management to the downtown Reno café. The couple has already been approached about franchising, but their immediate interest is in improving downtown by bringing even more musical talent to new Reno venues.
Recent Thursday and Friday night crowds at EJ’s basked in the personal warmth generated by West Coast songbird Elaine Lucia. The band backing Lucia worked well with her tremendous range. Pianist Bill Hecht, bassist Hans Holdt and drummer Andy Heglund thrilled the crowd with exquisite smoothness and flexibility.
At the Friday night show, Tony Savage, regular drummer for the Reno Jazz Orchestra, dropped by after drumming for Grease at the Eldorado’s showroom and replaced Heglund on the skins. The audience sat transfixed as Savage worked his solo. Each lightning-fast change between toms and snare rose from a whisper to outright thunder beneath a blur of sticks, while Savage struck like a cobra for syncopated cymbal accents. The artist dropped both sticks and played his kit with bare hands, achieving deft Latin rhythms and complicated triplets.
After 35 years, Savage remains one of Reno’s most popular jazz and big-band drummers. He serves as an honorary board member with the Reno nonprofit organization, For the Love of Jazz.
Following the show, Savage recalled the metamorphosis of Northern Nevada’s jazz scene over the last 40 years.
“By the age of 13,” Savage said, “I was sitting in with bands at places like the Mandarin on Wells Avenue, a jazz palace that really roared for years.”
Savage talked about the downstairs bar at Harrah’s being a jazz club in years past. He recalled with fondness the Truckee River Bar & Grill as a popular jazz club up until about 1989. Savage played behind Engelbert Humperdinck from 1976 to 1988, then returned to Reno and hosted the Tony Savage Trio at Adele’s on South Virginia until 1993.
Harrah’s Reno, 219 N. Center St., keeps the classic appeal of a well-appointed jazz lounge alive with the Sapphire Club. Great live jazz groups play Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m. Cami Thompson sang on a recent night, backed by the superb expertise of pianist Grant Levin, bassist Richard Gray and drummer Bob Bacha. Thompson energetically performed some of the most artistic scat styling in the Western states. She performs at the Sapphire Friday and Saturday evenings through Aug. 21.
“When I was coming up in the industry, a wonderful musician, the late saxophonist Rico Mordenti, gave newcomers like me a leg up,” Thompson said. “In fact, I wouldn’t have this career if it weren’t for his kindness.”
The newest jazz-only club in town, Tonic, 231 E. Second St., proves to be a pleasant surprise. Despite being open only since late June, most seats were filled by the faithful before 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday night. Owners Josh Smeltz and Ivan Bryant have redecorated the interior with Smeltz’s original paintings, comfortable couches and overstuffed armchairs. The club seats approximately 60 patrons and sports a large dance floor and excellent acoustics. The crowd tends to be younger, but greater diversification will likely occur as other enthusiasts visit Tonic for great listening and a well-appointed bar. Tonic’s hookah and cigar lounge will open in the near future. Smeltz, who also worked for the Blue Lamp for about two years, said the format will always be jazz.
“We have a vision for the downtown area,” said Smeltz, “and we hope we’ll be the catalyst for more mellow music and a sense of community among clubs along Second Street.”
Pianist Grant Levin often visits Tonic after hours—the club is open nightly from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m.—for jams with other local musicians. Levin’s impeccable timing and feel for the keyboard’s melodic voice make him one of the area’s most popular players. The 23-year-old UNR music major keeps steady gigs at Moody’s Bistro and Lounge in Truckee, the Lahontan Golf Club in North Lake Tahoe and the Fourth Street Bistro in Reno. Whether solo or with a combo, Levin’s lyrical piano style merits the fandom this incipient virtuoso generates. His album, The Bust, is available on Beezwax Records.
“Many jazz clubs hold the format for several years then change to something else as need dictates,” Levin said. “Nevertheless, if people keep showing support, some of us will introduce more challenging and innovative selections that blur the lines between straight jazz and more avant-garde music.”
Northern Nevada jazz vocalist Debbie DeFazio is often accompanied by Levin. She boasts a strong following among jazz fans in the Truckee Meadows and in several Lake Tahoe clubs. DeFazio represents the best tradition of such songstresses as Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn.
“I studied privately with Judy Davis, who taught voice at UC Berkeley and who coached Barbra Streisand and even Joe Cocker,” DeFazio said.
Many of the entertainers interviewed for this article noted the national resurgence of interest in jazz by younger crowds, but for those who love jazz, what matters is experiencing the music. Clubs that maintain a jazz format at least four days each week seem to maintain a constant level of popularity, say local musicians. The jazz scene in Reno and the Northern Nevada area continues to maintain its popularity despite the fate of past venues—very likely due to the high proportion of artistic individuals who call our area home.
For those who love the ambience and thrill of live jazz, the future of the art in Northern Nevada looks as bright as a footlight reflected off the bell of Dizzy Gillespie’s bent trumpet.