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How one cafe is keeping jazz alive in Reno

Two young men are playing instruments in a dimly lit room. One student is playing a trombone and the other is playing a saxophone.
Nick Stewart
KUNR Public Radio
UNR students performing at Jazz Night at the Laughing Planet Cafe’s North Virginia Street location in Reno, Nev., on March 1, 2023.

The Laughing Planet Cafe near the University of Nevada, Reno campus hosts a Jazz Night every Wednesday, and it’s a major hit among students and casual jazz enthusiasts.

People rushed upstairs at the Laughing Planet Cafe as the band started to play. They’re getting a taste of what some might call a bygone era.

The group playing that night call themselves the Sagebrush Swingers, and they improvised much of what they played.

Even though they play whatever notes first come to mind during their show, somehow it all flowed together so smoothly.

As you listen, you’re transported back in time to a 1930’s New Orleans jazz club. But it’s 2023, and we’re in Reno, Nevada.

Reno is not a community that first comes to mind when someone thinks of jazz, but Reno has its own history with jazz performers. Tim Healion helps organize Jazz Night at the Laughing Planet. And back in the day, the jazz scene in Reno was much bigger, he said.

“There were amazing musicians that lived here through that time of the big cabaret shows and all the big shots coming to Reno, and so they play for the shows, the cabaret shows, and then afterwards, they go jam somewhere else,” Healion said.

Jazz Night is one of the only regular events in town where you can go watch jazz performances. And what makes it unique is the performers are often just students from UNR just across the street. Healion said that’s part of how they’re able to attract a younger audience.

“The university promotes it within the music department. Social media stuff. We got flyers around some places,” Healion said.

Most students like to go to Jazz Night as a place to study or hang out with friends. Truckee Meadows Community College student Angel Padilla showed up with his friends not knowing what to expect.

“They actually invited me. I love jazz, and I didn’t know this was a thing. Being here, sick. Genre, amazing. Love it. It’s a blast,” Padilla said.

But some students like to go to Jazz Night for other things, like school projects, as was the case for UNR student Aiden Gamble.

“I have an assignment due in one of my classes and I needed to go to a concert. And this just happened to work out, lined up very well with the concert time. I figured a jazz concert for a jazz class,” Gamble said.

The Sagebrush Swingers, the group playing that night, have only been performing together for six months. Founding member Kelli Noel-Palmer plays the trombone, while her husband is on the banjo.

“We practice weekly at our house and we try and just do fun gigs. We work hand in hand with Reno Swings here in town. They teach swing lessons, we play for them. And it’s a lot of fun,” Noel-Palmer said.

Improvising the music with everyone is easier said than done, Noel-Palmer said.

“It takes a lot because I actually do have stage fright. So, it’s actually something for me to get out of my shell. I just love the music so much and I want to share it. So that’s kind of what gets me to release a little bit of stress and anxiety about getting up in front of people. And then it’s mostly just about having fun,” Noel-Palmer said.

In the middle of their show, they asked for audience members to come up and play with them. And people lined up by the stage waiting for their turn.

Someone from the crowd played the piano, and they seemed to hit the notes and chords without even thinking.

At the same time, a student with a saxophone walked up to the stage. He didn’t even hesitate before he started to play. When the sound of his sax met the sounds of the other instruments, they blended seamlessly.

When the show ended, the audience stood up and cheered.

Jazz Night is held every Wednesday night at the Laughing Planet Cafe’s North Virginia Street location from 7:30-9:30 p.m.

KUNR’s Nick Stewart is a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Nick Stewart is a political reporting intern for KUNR and a student with the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR.
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