Jazz is still protest music

For Tristan Selzler, the COVID age means shows in a neighborhood park and a new composition honoring slain teen Miciah Lee

Tristan Selzler, David Gervais, Joel Stevens, and other members of the Reno Jazz Syndicate played 12 shows at Dick Taylor Park. "People aren't OK right now. And music heals,” said Selzler. - Photo by Rachel Selzler

After posting a plea to follow health guidelines on Facebook, Tristan Selzler continued, “We’ve lost so many people to the pandemic already, and this generation will have to continue the forfeiture of the prime of our lives if we continue to act selfishly.” He concluded, “There will be no Reno Jazz Syndicate performance at The Loving Cup for at least the next three weeks.”

This after only a couple of months of gigging in socially distanced atmospheres, providing “ambient music,” while following strict county health guidelines. Selzler played about 30 gigs (about a tenth of his usual load for this time period) throughout the recent window of permitted live, socially-distanced entertainment.

Musicians like Selzler, who rely upon live performance for the lion’s share of their income have been especially hard hit. “From 60 to Zero. Just gone. Done,” he said. Teaching subsidizes some of his lost income, but this crisis had Selzler thinking, “I’m going to lose my fucking apartment.”

Balancing social distance & community connection

Through months of economic hardship and missing the fellas, the bandmates, playing and even just hanging out, the Reno Jazz Syndicate was mobilized by the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the brutal police killing of George Floyd. RJS lent musical support behind the BLM speakers on stage in Reno’s Believe Plaza. 

“It’s not safe, I know,” Tristan said. “But I also know I can’t stay inside for this. We have to be downtown. It was powerful. The first time the Reno Jazz Syndicate got back together after lockdown was for this cause. We cannot stay inside anymore. We might get sick. But they’re killing these people. And there’s no sign of stoppage—that’s why we came out … to try to be the best allies that we could.”

Shortly after the BLM protests, Selzler organized a dozen outdoor performances at Dick Taylor Memorial Park, for no pay, but to play “just for our soul inside,” for lucky passersby, and those who may have caught wind of these sets through social media. Each band member set up on a 10-foot tarp, assuring safe distances.

“I feel that it’s important to play this music … for my mental health for my sanity, I need it,” said Selzler. “And for the people out there who need this stuff. People aren’t OK right now. And music heals.”

A new composition, ‘not for God, not for country … for a boy who deserved to live’

Selzler wants the Reno Jazz Syndicate to “not only promote jazz, but creative music in general.” The RJS is a loose collective of players who join in different combinations, which include the funk band Sly Buford, the St. Christopher Project, playing the music of Tom Waits, and others.

“Jazz often gets put in this box of like, ‘We want a 1940s-something, we want it to sound and look and feel a certain way,'” Selzler said. “We’re not trying to sell you on the nostalgia of big-band ballads and Broadway or the Great American Songbook. We want to be modern. We want to be progressive. We want politics in our music. Jazz has been protest music for a long time. Jazz was born out of slavery and some real travesties, and so to parade around like it’s just a swing and a happy-go-lucky, roaring ’20s kind of thing— that’s not what we do.”

Jazz as a form of protest goes at least as far back as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” (1939), with her haunting imagery of lynched Black people hanging from poplar trees. In “Mississippi Goddamn,” (1964) Nina Simone sings about the struggle for racial equality in the wake of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, which killed four Black children. “We Insist!” Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite” (1960) signifies the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. The album amplifies the social dissonance, struggles and great yearning of the Civil Rights Movement, especially as singer Abbey Lincoln’s anguished and horrific cries wail over the sometimes pensive, and other times frenetic pulse of Roach’s rhythm section.

At a moment between the George Floyd protests and getting back to a partial semblance of regular gigging, Selzler was inspired to raise the cry for justice for Miciah Lee, the 18-year-old who was shot by Sparks Police on Jan. 5.

Selzler’s inspiration through early lockdown was flagging: “I felt like a caged animal. I didn’t feel like a composer. I didn’t feel moved. I felt scared, lonely and depressed.” Upon seeing continuing protests and unanswered calls to justice regarding police shootings, Selzler’s muse began whispering.

Mike Mayhall and Tristan Selzler playing RJS residency at 10 Torr – Photo by Rachel Selzler

“It struck me to write the ‘Suite for Miciah Lee,’” he said. What a beautiful idea to write music not for God, not for country, not for a king, but for a boy who deserved to live, who deserved better than what he got. And that’s when, as a composer, I got back that feeling that I am writing for something.”

“Suite for Miciah Lee” is a four-movement piece. The imploring and plantive melodies of the first movement, “For Miciah,” capture the halted vibrancy of a young life cut short. The second movement, “Love for Miciah’s Family,” is set to a soulful, unifying groove. Twisting double-saxophone melodies and brilliant improvised sections set up movements three and four, “A Call for Reform,” and “A Call for Justice,” all echoing the imperative desire for positive change. 

Selzler said that one of the main goals of the suite is to keep the conversation going. “We’re not talking about having no police officers,” he said. “We’re talking about maybe a world where instead of being shot five times—that a social worker, or community liaison, or someone with the interest of helping this kid, rather than treating him like they did, [with deadly force].”

Selzler shared that he would love to re-debut “Suite for Miciah” in a time and place that would allow for a larger audience, perhaps in Reno’s Believe Plaza.

Now, as COVID-19 surges, Selzler is working on several online collaborative projects, including a Reno Jazz Syndicate big band video, where all players record at home, and an RJS recording of another one of his suites. He will still live stream church events, and he’s working on Moondog Matinee’s upcoming album.  

Once health and gathering restrictions allow, Selzler looks forward to resuming his usual four-to-five performance outings a week. He sees the possibility of more “Music In The Park” pop-ups, as well as music in his driveway.

“Saddle up,” Selzler said. “Do the best you can, and don’t stop. We didn’t stop playing music just because the money went away. We didn’t stop playing music just because the fans weren’t there. We had to play music because that’s who we are. That’s how we express the human condition. I just gotta keep going.”


You can listen to Reno Jazz Syndicate on Spotify.Digital tracks by the Reno Jazz Syndicate and Tristan Selzler’s solo album, Modern Dance, are available on Amazon.


This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.