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Planting the seeds of jazz


Submitted by Chuck Reider

Today jazz education is on the agenda. One story is about three days in February, and the other 34 years in the making.

Feb. 11- 13 the Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) will host our annual Jazz in the Schools (JITS).  JITS Director Andy Heglund had to be creative this year to build an all-online program.  Typically, we invite all Washoe County School District middle and high school jazz bands to come to the University of Nevada, Reno for a full day of jazz with student performances and clinics. Usually, 300 students attend and perform, but this is not a usual year.

Heglund has enlisted two national jazz clinicians to each lead four clinics to eight total school jazz bands live online Thursday and Friday.  On Saturday morning, they will lead two band director clinics and in the afternoon we host an online concert featuring RJO trumpeter Julien Knowles’ quartet performing his original compositions.

We can’t invite you to attend in person, but we are planning to make most of these sessions available online to all of you. Check out our website www.renojazzorchestra.org for details as they come available so you can join the Zoom.

Now back to 34 years ago, when Larry Engstrom planted a “jazz” seed at UNR which has grown to bear fruit for all of us to enjoy.  He moved to Reno in 1987 with the expectation of being UNR’s trumpet instructor, but at his interview the department chair asked if he would also rehearse the jazz band, which at the time was the only jazz class offered.  Engstrom began adding classes such as jazz improvisation, jazz history, and jazz arrangement, all of which he taught. 

He then took the reins of the Reno Jazz Festival as director in 1991, a position he held for 25 years. The festival was personal to him as he says, “As a high school student, coming to the Reno Jazz Festival was one of the highlights of the year. We came all 4 years, so I got to see some great musicians and attend valuable workshops. Just as important for a kid that age was seeing other high schools perform. It really opened my eyes as to what was possible at that age.” 

He also states, “Serving as director of the festival for 25 years has provided me with some of the most meaningful memories of my life.”  

During his tenure attendance grew from 60 school bands to more than 300. As the jazz program grew he was able to bring on additional staff who are the basis for the jazz faculty group “The Collective.”   

Larry Engstrom with the UNR’s jazz faculty quintet The Collective

Engstrom was recruited to become Chair of the music department in 2001. Though at first reluctant to move into administration, he was finally convinced by Dean Robert Mead to do so. In 2004, he accepted an offer to become the founding director of the new UNR School of the Arts, a job that presented a whole new set of challenges requiring creative solutions.  First was the seventy-hour work weeks!  Second was to expect the unexpected.  Each workday he would have an agenda in his mind to accomplish which would immediately be side-tracked with the need to work with staff to resolve issues as they came through the door.

Engstrom had a vision for an additional school of the arts building to accommodate increasing student enrollment. He began the planning and fundraising process in 2005 and all was moving forward until the recession of 2008 when the state could no longer afford to fund 50% of the project. 

Back to square one. 

Now UNR had to raise 100% of the money. Engstrom credits then-UNR President Marc Johnson for taking the lead in completing the fundraising effort when the economy began to recover in 2014-2015.  Construction began in June 2017 and the new building, The University Arts Building, opened Feb. 22, 2019.  Though the building’s original design had to be downsized to meet the new budget, it is a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility—14 years in the making! 

Engstrom decided to step back from administration in 2017, but stayed on the building committee until it opened in 2019.  This was a beginning of the “phasing in” of his retirement.  For two years, he taught jazz courses one semester a year until his retirement this fall.

During his 34 years at UNR in both teaching and administration, Engstrom was a major force growing the arts programs and guiding it into the future he saw way back in 1987.  During that time jazz has changed (as it does) and the UNR jazz program reflects that change.  The 1987 jazz “definition” is no longer true.  Today jazz is less about jazz standards (although they still teach them) and more about exploring new forms of expression that incorporate ideas/approaches from other musical genres and non-Western world music. 

During his tenure, the music department faculty grew from 14 to 30 and the University Arts Building was completed.  He was awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award acknowledging his accomplishments. Key to success? Engstrom simply says he just was not afraid to ask for more resources. 

Now retired, he has not decided what is next. Right now, he is enjoying time with his family, especially the grandchildren, and has plans to travel with his wife Kris.  He does sit at the piano and improvise songs, mostly ballads, as he needs to tune up his piano “chops.”  Maybe down the road he’ll take on composing. 

I failed to mention that he is also a gifted trumpet player (did I bury the lede?) who you can hear on several UNR faculty Collective recordings and is featured on the RJO’s “Jazz Alive” recording.

I want to personally thank him for his hard work because the RJO has benefitted from all the gifted musicians who come to UNR to study jazz.

Chuck Reider

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz OrchestraChuck has been a professional trombonist for over 45 years. He moved to the Reno-Tahoe area in 1978 where he played his first casino gig at the Cal-Neva and performed as a showroom musician with all the great entertainers from Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. to Diana Ross and Willie Nelson. He performed with the Reno Philharmonic for over 30 years, retiring in 2018.  He is a founding member of the Reno Jazz Orchestra and has been the Music Director since 2006. Chuck also worked as an engineer at NDOT for 18 years, has been married to his wife Candy for 33 years and they have two sons, Charlie and Matt.

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