By Matt Bieker
Sitting at a shaded table, on a public sidewalk, outside of a downtown Reno coffee shop with Jammal Tarkington felt like sitting with a celebrity. While we spoke on what became one of the first hot, sunny mornings of the year, our interview was interrupted no less than three times by passersby—friends of his who recognized the long-time Reno musician—and either shouted hellos from across the street or stopped to have a full conversation. He returned greetings and encouragement in turn before returning to the topic at hand, unfazed. It seemed like this happened a lot.
If he’s famous, it’s understandable. Tarkington’s soulful vocals and dexterous saxophone have been featured in successful bands on both the local and world stage for decades, starting with the wildly popular ska outfit The Mudsharks in 1991, and since, including Reno reggae favorites Keyser Soze, acoustic duo Verbal Kint (he’s a big Usual Suspects fan by the way), and the hip-hop/jazz crew Who Cares.
As we sat down, I felt compelled to mention I’m a huge fan of Who Cares, who played their final show in 2016, and Tarkington started our conversation with some great news.
“Who Cares will be actually putting out some new music soon,” he said. “We have a July date. Sierra Arts is doing a festival downtown at the city center. I have to make sure that [Who Cares MC Ernie Upton] is cool because he’s got a lot of art projects in California.”
The resurrection of Who Cares was in the works before the spread of COVID-19, Tarkington said, and had to be put on another hiatus. He then spent his year of pandemic isolation locked away in his apartment, exploring new technology to keep in touch with the saxophone and vocal students he tutors, playing his horn and “watching a bunch of stupid-ass shit on TV.”
Now vaccinated, he’s put his pent-up creative energy into furthering ongoing projects and finding new ones.
“We actually just recorded something yesterday,” Tarkington said. “Alex [Korostinsky], the bass player from the Sextones—he lives upstairs from me—and Rufus Haereiti, Tristan Selzler on keyboard, and I’m not sure who we’re going to pull in on guitar. I got some horn parts written for it, but it’s just like a funk, break, Meters-esque type thing.”
That group is so new it doesn’t even have a name yet and is, for the time being, strictly a recording band. But Tarkington has plans to shop the forthcoming funk band for label attention if they can record more tracks in the coming weeks.
Another of his projects with international aspirations underway is dub/reggae venture The First Cuts, in which Tarkington plays with Chris Dowd of Fishbone, The Aggrolites’ Roger Rivas, Blake Colie of The Lions and fellow Keyser Soze horn player Rodney Teague. The group cut a 45 of their single “Didn’t I Always” (and a remixed dub version, “Dub I Always”) in 2019 that sold out in their UK and Japanese markets.
“It’s kind of like an all-star group thing,” Tarkington said. “We’re trying to finish the album, hopefully, before the beginning of the summer. I think we got, like, six songs done.”
International audiences are nothing new for Tarkington. Years back, during one of his several tours to Asia and as part of acoustic duo Verbal Kint, he and guitar player Ryan Hall even performed a private show for the Princess of Thailand.
He and Hall have since changed the group name to Dark Corners, Tarkington said, and likewise has a new album and music videos in the works for the end of the year. If all goes well, Tarkington and his ska cohorts might end up back in Asia sometime in 2021 as well.
“I think this fall or winter we’ll be going back to Asia,” he said. “I’m talking to my friend right now to try to secure a couple of festivals over there, and if it works out, then Keyser will probably end up going.”
The opportunities, I could see, are piling up for Tarkington’s musical pursuits—and there are many—with shows and albums tentatively scheduled for the latter half of the year in almost all of them.
As the sun rose high and beat against the brick wall of the coffee shop—I was regretting my hot latte while Tarkington had declined a drink—we covered the extensive list of music he was making, and our conversation turned to Reno itself. Originally from Stockton, California, Tarkington moved here 30 years ago on a scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno’s music program.
“When I was younger, it was a space to, like, kind of try to find a place to grow up,” Tarkington said. “And I was like, ‘It’s far enough from home for me to have to deal with my own and grow up. But it’s far enough from home to where … it’s a bit of an escape.’”
Besides the school band, he stayed for the great outdoors, punk rock, graffiti, hip-hop, jazz and a “world-class” group of friends. He was able to support himself as a member of the Mudsharks, who toured extensively in the early ’90s. But as the city grew, opportunities for musicians haven’t necessarily grown in turn.
“The numbers that we used to get at our shows here in town, and the money that we made when I was, like, literally a kid—you know what I mean? You can’t make that here anymore,” Tarkington said. “When you think of how rent used to be $400 a month, now you can’t get a place for $1,500 a month. When I was a freshman playing jazz gigs for a hundred bucks, the jazz gigs are still a hundred bucks.”
Gentrification, the economics of Reno’s famously unaffordable housing market and the closure of many midrange venues all have had a hand in stifling Reno’s ability to support a professional music scene like Tarkington found here in the ’90s.
But also to blame, and perhaps more essentially, is the broken music economy between players and listeners. Tarkington believes musicians need to be firm about the price they need to put on a show or release an album, and, more importantly, audiences simply need to pay it—especially when some of the local talent really is world-class.
“And if we want to have people like that in our community thrive, then we’re going to have to support them just like a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or a bike shop or whatever the hell it is,” Tarkington said, gesturing to the wall behind us.
Still, Tarkington is grateful. He’s getting back to playing music. The tools he found to connect with his music students have served him so well, he intends to keep using them after the pandemic ends. And, he lives with “a good woman” in an apartment close to where he can go fly fishing.
For a musician whose music has taken him everywhere, he mostly stays in Reno for the people—and they stop to talk to him when they see him at the local coffee shop.
“I’m thankful. I’m real lucky for where I’m at,” Tarkington said. “I’ve traveled and been around and met a lot of people, and it’s like, I have a couple circles of friends here who are special. That is what probably more than anything has kept me here as long as possible–the people. I love Reno. It’s a good place.”
Correction: Jammal Tarkington and Ryan Hall, aka Verbal Kint, played for the Princess of Thailand several years ago, not on their last tour. The story has been updated to reflect that.