The Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra.

The Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO) and Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO) separately catered to different age groups for many years, only occasionally sharing a stage.

At long last, that’s changing: The groups announced a merger in July, and the nonprofit orchestras are now working together to enrich music education across the area.

During a recent phone interview, Reno Jazz Orchestra executive director John Bennum joined Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra founders Vernon and Karen Scarbrough to discuss the merger.

“I’m new to my position with the Reno Jazz Orchestra, but Vern and I have a long history; he was my first music teacher in the sixth-grade. He was my band director, and he has recently become our (board) vice president of the Reno Jazz Orchestra,” Bennum said. “He has been a great mentor to me, then and now. The inclusion of RYJO in the Reno Jazz Orchestra organization represents a huge milestone for us in terms of developing and growing our education programs. I’ll let Vern and Karen speak more to this directly, but they grew RYJO from a tiny seed on their own back in 2006 into what it is today, and their students have gone on to do incredible things. … I’m just really thrilled to be affiliated with them and to be a part of continuing their mission and ours as we go forward.”

The RYJO started out of necessity, Vernon Scarbrough said.

“In 2006, Karen and I recognized that there were quite a few youth groups in the community already, but none of them were focused on jazz,” Vernon said. “Consequently, as a band director, we decided we’d start a nonprofit, and tried to create an organization that would give kids an opportunity to play jazz outside of the school district, and supplement and complement what they were learning in the school district. We started a big band in 2006, and we had I think 23 students start with us. We approached the Reno Jazz Orchestra at the time and made our pitch to them, hoping to merge or become a part of the RJO, but they were not ready for that, and we were not ready for that. … The RJO is for the professional big-band players in town, and the RYJO is for the developing ensemble. We just have been running in parallel for years to the point where the RJO matured into an organization that would be capable, and have the resources available, to continue the RYJO.”

After 16 years, both Karen and Vernon said they are ready for the transition.

“We’ve been doing it for such a long time, and we grew it into two big bands and a combo,” Karen said. “Over the years, we’ve had hundreds of kids graduate; we have a 100% graduation rate from high school; we have many kids who went on full scholarships for music. We have kids who’ve turned pro; we have one who’s touring with a band. We were ready to hand over all the administrative duties—like the fundraising and setting up the gigs and that kind of stuff—to the RJO. They’ve been wanting to merge with us for a long time, so it just is a natural transition, really.”

The Reno Jazz Orchestra performs at Sand Harbor.

However, the founders will remain involved.

“As this was their baby, Karen and Vern will be continuing to oversee our operations and the music direction of that youth program for at least the first year, and then probably in a supervisory role or some kind of consulting role, because it really was their vision that we want to continue,” Bennum said. “After that, of course, we want to continue that legacy and just grow it by hopefully serving more youth musicians … and giving them more opportunities to perform alongside their mentors, and become peers with their mentors as professional musicians.”

Karen talked about how the RYJO helped out someone close to Bennum.

“One way that John was personally affected by RYJO is through (who is now) his fiancée,” she said. “She’s a trombone player and was a great kid. She didn’t have the transportation, so we were able to help her with that; she would come to rehearsal on the bus with her big trombone, and then we were able to get her home. Then we were able to procure a trombone donation for her—and she went on to be a spectacular player.”

Bennum didn’t get the chance to play in the RYJO, because it started two years after he graduated from high school.

“So many of those kids (have been part of the RYJO),” he said. “Some of them have been my own students, and many of them have become my colleagues, so it’s really special to me. … It’s really special to me to see that my students get those opportunities.”

The Scarbroughs said they firmly believe that the best form of education for musicians comes through playing with other musicians, and they’re excited that the merger will provide more opportunities for the orchestras to commingle.

“For the RYJO, our purpose is not to create professional musicians,” Vernon said. “We’re trying to teach jazz education by giving our students performance opportunities that they would not get in their school. Unlike the school district that rehearses every day, our program only meets one day a week, and we only practice for two hours. Creating that opportunity for students to play is really what it’s all about. … I’m a firm believer that the younger kids need to have the chance to see what right sounds like, and what right looks like, for these really high-caliber musicians. They can sit next to a player who’s much better than them, and it raises up their own level of playing.”

Bennum pledged that the merger will benefit both orchestras.

“I know Vern said that the goal is not to specifically foster professional musicians here, but that is a part of it,” Bennum said. “Continuing to foster those opportunities without changing what is already great about their organization would be my specific goal, and I think the goal of our board of directors. We just want to pool our resources to make sure that this is something that can continue to grow forever.”

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