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The Jazzettes: Women in jazz

By ThisIsReno
The Jazzettes. Image: Provided by RJO

Submitted by Chuck Reider, Director of Reno Jazz Orchestra

Chuck Reider

The Reno Jazz Orchestra’s (RJO) monthly offering will present the Jazzettes, a trio of very talented women June 20 at 2 p.m. on the RJO YouTube channel.

The trio features Cami Thompson on percussion, Erika Paul on piano and Julie Machado on bass.  All of them sing and share an infectious sense of humor. Each are successful professional musicians with separate careers.

It was a New Year’s Eve gig five years ago when Thompson, performing her Bette Midler show, saw Machado and her husband Larry in the audience. They started talking and came up with the idea of a women’s jazz group.

Thompson and Machado got in touch with Paul to complete the trio and after many text messages they decided on the “Jazzettes.” It took them a couple of years to develop a full repertoire of songs as they worked around their already full schedules. This is a special fun group for each of them and what makes this concert special for me is I have known and worked with these ladies over the course of many years.

Let me introduce you to them.

The Jazzettes
The Jazzettes

Paul’s father was a classical pianist who loved jazz but didn’t have the natural inclination to improvise. She studied classical piano for fifteen years and her family inspired each other to perform, especially at Christmas parties. She grew up in San Francisco and discovered she did have an inclination to improvise so she attended San Jose State University and earned a jazz performance degree. 

She moved to Reno in 1991 to invest in real estate with her boyfriend (it’s always the boyfriend!). Their first home was in Lemmon Valley. I must have met her about that same time as she joined the Musicians’ Union to play in “kicks bands” (big bands that played just for fun in the main hall) and to practice on the grand piano in the hall. I was a union officer at the time, so I was there a lot, for the good of the union, and hey play in those kicks bands. 

Paul is a dedicated music instructor teaching, hosting recitals and holding masterclasses at her home. She did work during COVID-19 as a solo or duo with her husband. With things opening up she is looking forward to start booking her six-piece group the “Swingin-Jazz Kats.”

If you are a fan of local jazz or theater you know the voice of Cami Thompson. A Reno native raised in a musical family, she started singing at 2, piano lessons at 6, and sang with her two sisters and her dad throughout their childhood at church and civic events. Her dad was a professional musician and worked a lot with singer Jan Savage. 

In middle and high school her band teacher was Ron Legg, a founding member of the RJO. Her career took her to London in 1983 to study theater and she stuck around an extra three months to sing in clubs.

Returning home, she continued her singing career and restarted her college career at UNR. She was close to graduation when she received an offer to sing in Cannes, France.  Of course, she took it and had a gig for ten months singing every night. 

Cami Thompson performing at Artown. Image: Kylie Masznicz.
Cami Thompson performing at Artown. Image: Kylie Masznicz.

Things went sideways when her manager forged her name to a five-year recording contract with a financier and when she refused to honor that contract the financier sued her. No money and no more gigs in Holland she commuted to Cannes on weekends to perform and make a money to pay her court fees until the lawsuit was resolved in her favor. 

Depressed, she came back home and stayed in her pajamas for two weeks until her mother told her it was time to look toward the future and not the past. Somewhere during this time I met Cami (I don’t remember how or when) and we would write songs and record them on my ultrahip (at the time) 4-track Portastudio,  a cassette recorder where you could record four separate tracks. 

It was 1990 and it was time for Cami to check out Los Angeles, where she lived for four years gigging in clubs and recording her first album, and then to San Francisco for 25 years. 

She has recorded six albums, one with the RJO. Visit her website camithompson.com to check them all out. She has opened shows for numerous jazz greats such as the Manhattan Transfer and Nancy Wilson. Not busy enough, she also was the lead in over fifty musicals and plays. 

During the COVID-19 lay off Thompson started liking the idea of retirement. She has started performing again, recently with her good musical friends Peter Supersano, Joe McKenna, Eric Middleton, Dallas Smith, Susan Mazer and Tony Savage.

I think Toni Tenille said it best: “Cami probably has more talent than any performer I know. Her voice does things I can only dream of doing. She has incredible stage charisma and timing, and she’s got THAT VOICE!”

Born in Colorado, Machado also grew up in the Reno area starting piano at 7 and bass in the sixth grade.  She decided to take up the bass after hearing Mel Nowell perform at the Reno Jazz Festival. 

Side note: Nowell was a jazz icon here in Reno for many years inspiring me and the rest of the younger jazz musicians. 

Julie began performing with the Reno Philharmonic in 1975, and I first met her in my early years with the Reno Philharmonic in the ‘80s.  Since the trombones are in close proximity of the bass players, it was natural to say hi and chat.

The Jazzettes, Cami Thompson, Erika Paul and Julie Machado, perform at the Carson City Jazz and Beyond Festival in August 2019. Image: Provided by Jazzettes

I always thought she was a classical player but in fact she has played a multitude of musical styles such as Shiloh, a folk duo; Brassakwards with her husband; The Nefarious Hoarde Street Band; and the Klezmer Kats. The first band she played in was a popular bluegrass band called Buzzards Roost.

She loves musicals as well and has performed in over 80 musicals, most recently playing in “the pit” for the Western Nevada Musical Theater Company.

Don’t miss the Jazzettes June 20 at 2 p.m. for the broadcast on the RJO YouTube channel. This summer you can also see them during the Carson City Jazz and Beyond Festival in August and on the Fourth of July at 12:15 p.m. in Genoa’s Mormon Station State Park. 

As the RJO Music Director people ask me why there are no women in the orchestra. That can be a much longer discussion in a future article. What I can say is it is encouraging to me to see many more girls participating in school jazz bands. I see that growth every February when the bands come and perform at our Jazz in the Schools festival. 

As Nowell was a mentor to me in the ‘80s, upcoming women jazz musicians would be well advised to meet Paul, Thompson and Machado. I am certain they would be happy mentoring the next generation.

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

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