When the young musicians of Jazz Juvenocracy returned home last summer, exalted but exhausted after a three-week European tour, Bit Risner thought the ensuing hiatus when five of the band's seven members left for college would be welcome.
"I thought, 'Maybe it will be fun to have a break from the band for a bit,'" says Risner, who was 9 when she helped found the middle school pickup group in 2007. "And then after a couple weeks, it was, 'Wait a minute. Where is everybody? This sucks!'
"This is the first time JJ has not been a part of my everyday life for the past seven years and that feels extremely weird."
During most of those seven years, Risner, now 17 and a home-schooled high school junior, hosted weekly rehearsals in her parents' living room, played a restaurant gig with the group every Sunday night and, as the sole female, endured the routine brotherly-like tortures of her bandmates. But at the moment, the nonprofit organization is in a restructuring phase, waiting on potential funding that may allow it to resurface as an educational program based at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
However, Risner's withdrawal will have a temporary respite when six former JJ members gather to present a a reunion concert during their spring break vacations this week. Original band members Rodney Rocques (drums), now in his third year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston; Alex Hernandez (tenor sax), a jazz performance major at the University of North Florida; and Risner (trumpet); will join with Aaron Lehrian (piano), Lamont Kaiser (bass), and Stephen Burnett (alto sax) — all current UNF students — for the one-time-only performance and fundraiser.
Lisa Risner — Bit's mother and the behind-the-scenes force from the start — calls this the "dream team," the most gifted musicians to ever have participated in the group. (There have been 13 total since it began.) After three European tours — where they played in Switzerland, Paris and at the famed North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands — many have reaped the benefits of having the tour and the band on their resumes.
Bit Risner has soloed in an Artist Series concert, guested with piano great Dick Hyman and played at the Suncoast Jazz Classic with the likes of John Lamb, Ed Metz and the Midiri brothers. Rocques has appeared with national names like Warren Wolf, Greg Neilson and Paul Duffy and has his own band with fellow Berklee students, The Jazz Full Riders (so named because they are all on full scholarships to the prestigious music school).
But despite the lure of brighter lights and bigger cities, all the "Juvies," as they are known, say their experiences with the band changed not only the trajectory of their careers, but their lives.
"There's not a day that goes by I don't think about that group," says Rocques, who claims to have become "the Lisa Risner of Berklee."
"I know I'm a good musician. We know how to play music. But this whole thing is about community and the life lessons learned. If anything, I can say I learned from JJ — from Lisa — how to be a leader, how to be responsible and how to be a nice person."
In fact, Rocques, 22, has even started an organization through his church in Boston that perpetuates some of the benefits he got from Risner, whom he likens to Art Blakey, the late jazz drummer and bandleader known for encouraging and providing opportunities for emerging musicians.
Rocques, whose mother still lives in Sarasota, is looking forward to "jumping into Lisa's pool" and reconnecting with his grown-up bandmates, including Hernandez, whose image in a recent photograph shocked him.
"Alex grew a moustache and I didn't even know he could," Rocques says, laughing.
Lehrian, 19, says he doesn't miss the hour and 10-minute drive he used to make from his home in Seminole at least once a week for JJ rehearsals, but he does miss the rehearsals themselves.
"It's always fun to play with friends who are good people and good musicians, so I'm looking forward to that," he adds.
As for Bit Risner, even though she's in regular communication with all her former bandmates and recently visited those at UNF, she's anticipating actually having the gang back in her living room once again.
"I can't wait to hear and see how they've grown as musicians," Risner says. "And hopefully we're going to hang out every second of every day they're here. I've so bonded with these guys. I'm even looking forward to having them pick on me again."
Does she ever think about what her life might have been like if the Juvies had never come to be?
"Honestly, that's way too much of a scary thought to think about," she says. "I don't know what I'd be doing. I'd probably be good at academics or something."
JUST KILLIN' JAZZ, Jazz Juvenocracy Reunion Concert, 8 p.m. March 22 at Glenridge Performing Arts Center, 7333 Scotland Way, Sarasota. $15-$20. 552-5325; www.gpactix.com