Notorious big band

Reno Big Band

The Reno Big Band puts real music in the hands of real musicians, and guess what? The resulting sounds could be classified as real good.

The Reno Big Band puts real music in the hands of real musicians, and guess what? The resulting sounds could be classified as real good.

Photo By Nick Higman

The next chance to catch the Reno Big Band is June 29 at the California Building, 1000 Whitmore Lane, in Idlewild Park. Other upcoming appearances include a fundraiser concert at the Hawkins Amphitheatre in Bartley Ranch, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road, on Sept. 28.

Because the music industry is so often defined by rock stars, drugs and appalling selfishness, I feel particularly privileged to tell you about Bruce Cox and his non-profit corporation, the Reno Big Band.

The motto of this 17-person band is “Keeping live music alive in Reno.” Cox and his band raise money to support musicians who use their real voices, real wood instruments and real brass instruments.

“We feel there’s a diminishing of live, human-made music,” Cox says. “We promote [human-made music] through education and presentation.”

In the RBB’s case, the presentation means a mix of old-school big band dance favorites and contemporary jazz. The balance of that mix depends on the setting. For their shows in front of general audiences like the Great Reno Balloon Race or high school graduations, they’ll stick to the dance numbers, starting slow and building up to faster songs as they go.

When they play for their own amusement, or when they’re at the 3rd Street Blues Club, they play a ton more jazz. The band members prefer it, and the music means more to connoisseurs.

“We like to improvise,” Cox says. “It’s that creative thing. Jazz is our only contribution to fine art. Everyone has a voice, and it always comes out different. It’s composing, arranging and performing all in the same second.”

While they don’t write their own material, they get new, highly-advanced jazz tunes from Los Angeles-based composers.

“We play challenging music,” he explains.

The RBB draws most of its performers from the ranks of casino band cast-offs. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, Cox says, most of the Reno casinos had 24/7 house bands. However, when the casinos figured out that people listening to music didn’t feed their money into the slot machines as quickly, a whole bunch of big-band musicians lost their jobs.

On the shiny, happy side of that coin, though, the casinos’ house band purge means Cox had access to multitudes of accomplished, veteran musicians. People like tenor saxophone soloist Bob Barnes, trombone player Russ Morrison and trumpeters Dickie Mills and Andrew Woodard.

Though the band has the big band jazz sound of yore, and most of the musicians are long-time casino veterans, not everyone in the RBB qualifies for social security benefits. The youngest member of the band is Muir Morrison, the 19-year-old son of Russ Morrison. The University of Nevada, Reno physics and music major plays sax with the guys every Tuesday and at parties.

The RBB’s current non-profit corporation status came about in 2007, five years after Cox bought all the equipment and took the band over from the previous leader. The band’s altruistic mission is to promote live music. Cox also says the organization helps to raise money for young musicians so they can attend band camps, take free lessons and go to college as music majors. Then, when, they graduate, they too will keep live music alive.