Meet Reno Jazz Orchestra co-founder Tony Savage
Published September 16, 2022
Meet Reno Jazz Orchestra co-founder Tony Savage
by Chuck Reider
Musicians who have performed in our area over the past 40 years know Tony Savage and most have worked with him. His showroom career started at the tender age of 14 at the Riverside and continued showroom gigs until Engelbert Humperdinck asked him to go on the road. It is my pleasure to introduce you to Savage and share his story.
Savage grew up in Reno as part of a musical family, his mother (Jan Savage) a pianist/singer and his grandfather (Louis Rosasco) an accordionist and singer. Granddad also owned the Palace Club that was next to Harrah’s and loaned the Musician’ Union the money for a new building. Interestingly that building is now the home of the RJO and the Good Luck Macbeth theater company.
Savage spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ home where he grabbed pots and pans to play like drums. Granddad thought the kid had something and Savage started taking drum lessons at the age of four. His mother would produce shows for the Elks Club, the 20th Century Club, and YWCA so at the age of five he became a featured act playing a toy drum set from FAO Schwartz. Granddad had the most popular dance band in town with Jan Savage as piano player and vocalist. Savage started performing with the band at age eight. Check out eight-year-old Savage standing on a chair playing with the advanced summer school concert band. By 10 he knew that music was going to be his career. Savage credits Gerry Genuario his drum mentor and teacher with putting the finishing touches on his drum artistry.
His showroom career began at the age of 14 where he needed a special drivers permit to go to and from work at the Riverside. At 15 he was working at King’s Castle (now the Hyatt) backing up stars like Phyllis Diller and Frank Gorshin. The 1970s was the golden era for showrooms and the musicians playing in them. When Savage began working at the Sahara Tahoe at 17, he would play two shows each night. The dinner show from 7:30-9:30 and the cocktail show starting at 11:30 and done around 1 a.m. after which he headed back to Reno to go to classes at UNR. At the Sahara Tahoe he worked great acts like the Jackson Five featuring Michael Jackson, Tom Jones, Elvis, and Engelbert Humperdinck. One night between Engelbert shows, the lead trumpet player took him to meet Engelbert, who offered Savage the job to travel with him. Two weeks into the gig he performed for Grace Kelly in Monaco and subsequently toured off and on for 36 years with Engelbert, seeing the world.
Fast forward to 1997, the RJO’s first year. Co-founder Jack Caudill called Savage to have lunch at Marie Callender’s (show of hands who remembers Marie Callender’s?) to discuss starting a big band selected from the best musicians in town. Savage shared who he thought were the best rhythm section players (piano, bass, guitar, drums) who could play all styles and lay down a groove. Caudill, a trumpet player, had ideas on the best horn section he could recruit. Caudill also decided to make the newly formed RJO a non-profit entity and wrote the mission statement and articles of incorporation. With the paperwork done the newly formed jazz orchestra musicians voted in favor; and thus, the Reno Jazz Orchestra was born.
Our first gigs were at the Continental Lodge on the corner of Plumb and South Virginia Street. Those gigs were a blast playing the music we loved to a packed house. Check out the KOLO News Channel 8 news story link. When Caudill left the band in 2001 the orchestra voted Savage to take the leadership position. There Savage decided it was time to look for performance opportunities for the RJO that brought money in to pay the band. He reached out to Montreux for an event there that became an annual event we continue to this day. He also began bringing guest artists like the great composer/arranger Pat Williams (think Frank Sinatra) and the great vocalist Patti Austin.
Savage always strived to get more originality from the orchestra and one way was to push us out of our comfort zones. Our 2002 album “Bach to Blues” produced by Savage and recorded live in one night is proof positive that his motivation worked. He is proud to have created a UNR scholarship for talented jazz students. The root of our Jazz in the Schools event began with Savage visiting a school band to play with the band and talk jazz, sometimes at 7 a.m. After 20+ years, Jazz in the Schools serves 300 students. The road beckoned him once more and he rejoined Engelbert’s tour band in 2006 and reluctantly stepped down as the RJO music director.
Today you most likely will find Savage in his home studio laying down drum tracks for recording projects from around the world. The COVID lockdown convinced him to build a home recording studio where he lays those tracks down. Back in the day musicians joked about phoning in their tracks. Today you can! His reputation as a first call drummer drives word of mouth clients to his door. Clients can send him the existing pre-recorded tracks through Dropbox. He then loads the tracks into his computer and records drum tracks and sends them back to client when he is happy with his performance. Savage continues to play live gigs with his favorite quartet: The Jackie Landrum Quartet, the Western Nevada Musical Theater, and will perform with legendary lead trumpet player Wayne Bergeron in Susanville.
If some of today’s music you hear is unsettling, Savage encourages everyone not to lose faith in music. For him it is still a thrill to propel a big band with his drums and the response of a live audience is so uplifting it keeps him going. He firmly believes music is a universal language that can bring you on a journey and bring you back home. I have taken that musical journey with him on many occasions performing with him and I thank him for being a major factor in the success of the RJO and wish him the best.
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