Reno's experimental jazz scene swings
Electronic distortion, unpredictable drops, driving bass guitar and a pounding backbeat assault the senses. You might immediately mistake the sounds for electronica, or EDM, or even heavy metal. But as Reno’s Run Through the Tape Trio begin to jam, unleashing original music by Tristan Selzler, it’s clear that something old has been made new again. As the trio comprised of Selzler on keys, Jordan Keach on bass, and Miguel Jimenez on percussion—all University of Nevada, Reno-trained jazz musicians—ramps up, some of the soulful, warm melodies emerge that bear an unmistakable jazz quality.
Amid the breathless frenzy surrounding electronic dance music reverberating in nightclubs, an old, unexpected friend is resurfacing and finding an all-new scene. Jazz, which some may consider the stuff old folks listened to before rock ‘n’ roll came along, has a growing and thriving contingent of players here in Reno who have found new ways to expand the genre and its audience.Not the same old tune
“The jazz scene in Reno is very modern right now,” said Miguel Jimenez, a jazz percussionist out of Las Vegas.
Like many other prominent local jazz musicians before him in this area, Jimenez is a student at UNR’s jazz and improvisational music program, which hosts the Reno Jazz Festival and boasts such world-class faculty as critically acclaimed recording artist and founding member of New York’s School for Improvisational Music Peter Epstein, Grammy-nominated and critically acclaimed musician and composer Adam Benjamin, and piano prodigy and award-winning recording artist James Winn.
“The UNR students are creating groups constantly, branching out and creating new kinds of music,” Jimenez said. “I’ll play in a traditional jazz group with a few guys one day, and then I’ll play funk with those same guys the next, or rock, but their roots are in jazz.”
“It’s hard to put jazz in a box,” said Selzler, who earned both bachelor and master’s degrees in the UNR jazz program and has been working as a full-time musician in the Reno-Tahoe area for about 10 years. Among his credits are composer of more than 200 works, musician with numerous local bands including reggae group Keyser Soze, music director for the Unity Center in Reno, faculty member at the Davidson Academy and Western Nevada College, and founder of the Reno Jazz Syndicate, a group of local musicians playing primarily jazz and blues that come together in a freelance way to assemble and reassemble for gigs around the area.Face the music
What makes jazz appealing to the scene’s major players is musicianship that’s hard to find in a lot of contemporary popular music. Darcy Kathleen, a local jazz singer with training in elementary education and architecture and interior design, divides her time among teaching music and vocal technique to kids at Tahoe School of Music and singing at gigs primarily in the Truckee-Tahoe area, along with her guitarist husband, Lucas Arizu. She says jazz drew her in because it’s unpredictable.
“I like it because it’s multidimensional, chaotic at times,” she said. “I love to see what happens with jazz. Every time you do a song, it’s different.”
To illustrate her point, she says her young pupils love Taylor Swift. “I’ll have them sing, and I’m comping them on the ukulele, but when you take all that sampling and stuff out of the background, you see it’s really just two chords.”
But this, she points out, is exactly what makes Swift so memorable and accessible to audiences, whereas jazz can be frustrating as an improvisational art form.
“But when you see musicians doing what they do. … When you watch Tristan or Miguel, you’re like ’Whoa!’ You’re watching masters, these skillful musicians with years of education. It’s intelligent.”
What’s great about the jazz scene, these musicians say, is the increasing number of venues willing to offer it.
“A lot of musicians make a good living here,” says Selzler. “It’s not like back in the ’60s and ’70s, when the casino work was so lucrative. But there’s a lot of work.”
All of them point to the Loving Cup on California Avenue as a hotbed of activity for local jazz musicians. The social club puts a heavy emphasis on live music and presents live bands and jam sessions every Thursday night. Selzler, who books its jazz gigs, realized recently that he had planned a seven-week lineup entirely comprised of jazz bands, every one of them different from the others, ranging from New Orleans brass band to acid jazz, to original works by himself and other local composers.
On Sundays, head to the Sands for jazz at the pool during the day or to St. James Infirmary, also on Cal Ave, for live jazz that night. Also at St. James on the last Friday of each month is a soul night affectionately called “Soul Slap.” Then, catch more on Wednesdays at Se7en Teahouse and Bar in the West Street Market. Wild River Grille, The Terrace at the Peppermill Reno, and even The Seed in Midtown offer live jazz as well. Then there’s Truckee’s Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats—with its regular lineup of jazz—as well as other Tahoe-area venues. You can pretty much catch live jazz any night of the week in the Reno-Tahoe area, and each night will be unique.
What’s not so great, some say, is that the scene may be too small and low-paying to support the large number of musicians ready to play—particularly in Reno.
“Reno has its ups and downs with clubs and places in casinos that flourish and flounder,” said Mike Mayhall, a graduate of the UNR jazz program who plays bass around the area with other local jazz artists, and supplements this passion by working full time as a cook. “If anything, it’s a little saturated, with not enough for everyone to make a living. There’s only so much work, so we spread around the area, into Carson and Tahoe and California. Older guys talk about how, in the ’70s, they didn’t leave the house for $100. Now you’re lucky to get a $100 gig.” But as Mayhall points out, while charging more makes sense in some cases, it’s better to be working than not, regardless of the money.
“If all you can get is $25 per person, and there’s nothing else going on that night anyway, you kind of have to take it,” he says. “It depends who you are. I’d rather have a job so I don’t have to worry about money, so I can do what I want musically and not worry how much I’m being paid. … For club owners, if they can make more money by paying a DJ, that’s what they’re going to do. We have a lot of people who aren’t willing to pay for what they think they want. If people are struggling, they’ll take a $40 gig rather than nothing. You can’t demand more when they can just go with someone else.”
Ultimately, though, they all say the scene seems to be growing, with audiences steadily increasing in size at the Loving Cup and other venues, and starting to discover jazz in new and meaningful ways.
As Jimenez points out, “It’s a small scene, but there’s a jazz for everyone.”