About Us


Gordon Vernick, trumpet (Director)

Dr. Gordon Vernick is a Professor of Music and Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Georgia State University. He holds a Bachelor of Music from Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY; a Master of Music in Education from the University of Miami, and a Doctor of Arts from the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley.

As a professional trumpet player, he has performed in all musical mediums from symphony orchestra to jazz quartet and has free-lanced all over the world. He is currently active in the Southeast United States as a clinician, an adjudicator, and as a freelance trumpet player.

As a jazz educator he is the past president of the Georgia Asso¬ciation of Jazz Educators, past chair of the International Association of Jazz Educators Curriculum Com¬mittee. He is currently the Director of the Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra and the musical director of the Rialto Jazz for Kids middle school jazz program. He co-wrote the college textbook, Jazz History Overview, published by Kendall-Hunt. The text is in its 2nd printing and has been adopted by numerous universities around the country.

He is director he GSU Faculty Jazztet which performs regu¬larly in Atlanta and has appeared at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, the High Museum Jazz Series, the International Association for Jazz Education Conference and many other venues in the southeast. He has performed with such world-renown jazz artists as Kenny Werner, Clare Fischer, John Hart, Kevin Hays, Conrad Herwig, Marc Copland, Randy Brecker, Paul McCandless, and many others. The Jazztet has performed twice in San Jose, Costa Rica, Moscow, and Beijing, China. The group was invited to perform in November 2004 at the Curso e Colegio Bardal in Florianopolis, Brazil. As a jazz clinician he has served residencies and performed at the Conservatory of San Juan, P.R., the Taipei American School in Taiwan, the Singapore American School, the Bangkok International School, the Jakarta International School, Columbia College Chicago, Montana State University, The Conservatory of Bordeaux, and the University of Capetown, South Africa.

His weekly radio show, Jazz Insights, on WMLB Atlanta, is available in podcast form on I-Tunes and was featured on the Apple Home Page in May 2009. The programs have been featured on a number of websites including the New York Times and have been downloaded over 0 million times since May 2009 His CD, The Strangest Thing, was released on Jbird Records in May 2008 and his latest CD, Destination, was released in May 2012. He is an Adams Trumpet performing artist.


By some measures, Kevin Bales was a latecomer to jazz, already 17 when he encountered the sounds and structures and became captivated by the freedom and corresponding challenges of the music. But if late to the party, he wasted no time in immersing himself in the celebration, declaring total commitment to what would be his life’s work and backing his announcement by resigning his job and designated career in computer programming.

Kevin could commit to jazz with a reasonable degree of expectation. He was already an accomplished pianist, with classical chops refined since the age of 10. So accomplished he was invited to audition for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, then under the direction of its most storied conductor Robert Shaw, at age 16.

Kevin’s initial career move was to the University of North Florida and a budding if little-known jazz program. There he met and performed with, and went on to record and tour with, a number of monumental artists who had settled into that burgeoning North Florida jazz scene. Giants like Wynton Marsalis, Louie Bellson, Eddie Daniels, James Moody, Ben Tucker, Ira Sullivan, Sam Rivers, and Nat Adderley. He counts among his mentors bassist Ben Tucker, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, guitar legends Nathen Page and Jack Petersen, and the fiercely individual saxophonist Bunky Green. His meeting with Bunky Green led to five years of tours. His encounter with guitarist Nathen Page blossomed into 15 years of spot tours and four albums. And his work with trumpeter extraordinaire Marcus Printup has become a lifetime association that has included recordings on Blue Note/Capital records.

Few artists have the patience for teaching – as are few teachers accomplished players. But Kevin has amassed a reputation for his prowess in both professions. While still a senior at North Florida he was drafted into a full teaching load, and continued to be an integral part of the school’s jazz program for upwards of a decade. Today, Kevin manages his own jazz program, overseeing an ambitious schedule of ambitious jazz students.
Far from burdensome, Kevin finds teaching exhilarating. “I love working with students,” he says, “and it helps me in my own playing, because you have to analyze and understand what you’re playing in order to explain it.”
Kevin has amassed a long list of awards and a reputation as one of the finest jazz pianists performing anywhere. In 1994, less than a decade into jazz, he won the American Pianist Association’s Jazz Piano Competition. In addition to nearly every important jazz venue in the South, he has performed in some of the most acclaimed clubs and festivals in America and around the world: the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, The Bakery in Los Angeles, The Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center jazz series, the Toronto and Edinburgh jazz festivals, and the Moscow Center for the Performing Arts.
His list of recordings is similarly extensive, including his own first album, The First Day, released in 2006, and recent titles with Motema recording artist Rene Marie, with whom he also currently tours. Their most recent album, Voice of My Beautiful Country, on the Motema Label is currently in the top 10 on the jazz charts.

Justin Varnes, drums (Combos)

Born in Jacksonville, Justin Varnes studied at the University of North Florida and the New School. In New York, Justin toured with Phoebe Snow, with whom he performed on the Roseanne Barr Show, Madison Square Garden, and National Public Radio’s “World Cafe”.

Justin has performed with several jazz greats in New York, including: Wessell Anderson, Peter Bernstein, Aaron Goldberg (Joshua Redman), Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Printup, Bob Reynolds, and Ben Wolfe (Harry Connick, Jr.).

Currently residing in Atlanta, GA, Justin performs regularly with Joe Gransden, Kevin Bales, Gary Motley, and Audrey Shakir as well as continued work with Bob Reynolds, Wycliffe Gordon, and Wessell Anderson. Justin was tapped for work as part of the Earl Klugh Trio and is a top call sideman for touring artists through the Southeast. He has performed with Mose Allison, Kenny Barron, Victor Goines, Vincent Herring, Kevin Hays, Lew Soloff, David Sanchez, and Ira Sullivan.

Justin Chesarek, drums/piano (Combos)

Justin Chesarek is all about swing. It’s what drives him, it’s what makes him strike drum heads with well-composed intensity, and it’s why some of the best jazz musicians in Atlanta keep him on call. Since arriving in Atlanta in August, 2008, Justin Chesarek, a transplant from rural Pennsylvania, has made quite a name for himself. He isn’t your average session drummer. While regularly playing gigs with Gary Motley, Laura Coyle, and Gordon Vernick, Justin also flexes his composing muscles with his group The Tree-O of Love, who maintain a regular Wednesday night gig at Churchill Grounds, Atlanta’s premier jazz club. Pulling diverse influences from jazz, classical, rock, world music, Justin writes and plays music with emotion, putting his artistry and talent in every note and beat he comes across. The end product is jazz — the virtuosity of Bebop, the soul and funkiness of the early days of Fusion, and a retro-modern mindset oozing with musicality and a beat that gets the inner ear thumpin’. “[Composing as a drummer] allows me to supply more of a concept of drums in melody. It gives me the opportunity to inject different rhythms and colors,” Justin said. Consorting with members of jazz royalty including Houston Person, Jerry Bergonzi, and Johnny O’Neal, just to name a few, Justin is regularly asked to perform with some of the biggest names around. A graduate of Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pa., Justin holds a Bachelors of Music in Education. Under the direction of Dr. Stephen Hawk, Justin completed a two-week European tour, making appearances at the Montreaux Jazz Festival and the North Sea Jazz Festival. Justin finished his Masters of Music in Jazz Studies program in May, 2010 at Georgia State University and currently teaches at Emory University and Kennesaw State University.

Mace Hibbard, sax (Combos)
Coming soon

Tyrone Jackson, piano (Combos)

The name Tyrone Jackson is quickly becoming synonymous with the quintessential jazz piano player.
His boundless creativity coupled with subtle accompaniments, has Tyrone poised for national recognition.

Born in the New Orleans’ cradle of jazz, Jackson embodies the spirit of the Crescent City. The blends of jazz, funk
and afro-carribean melodies are ever present in his work. But of course, musicians are never solely influenced by
themselves. Jackson’s teachers are a virtual Who’s Who of great jazz piano players ranging from Ellis Marsalis,
Kevin Bales to gospel legend Moses Hogan.

In addition to his composition skills, the jazz wonder is most known for his compelling solos. Jackson’s improvisational
skills allow him to become a part of the song whether he softly highlights ballads or tears through fast-paced standards.

Jackson has performed with Earl Klugh, Melba Moore, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon,
Vincent Gardner, Joe Lovano, Dave Douglas, Wes Anderson, Greg Dawson, Jennifer Holliday, Karen Briggs, Clay Jenkins,
Russell Gunn, David Sanchez, Damaris Carbough, Russell Malone, Marcus Miller along with opening for Esperanza Spaulding,
Gerald Albright, Spyro Gyra and the Crusaders, and Chaka Kahn. He also toured Italy and Austria with the UNO Jazz Band;
toured Brazil with Michael Ward ; Opened for. Toured Thule,Greenland and performed with FutureMan
(Roy Wooton) in Mableton, Ga.

His latest CD “Another Voyage” is his second solo release and first CD with label Hot Shoe Records. His songs are
currently played with much acclaim to worldwide audiences on XM 70 Satellite radio. Jackson was also
featured in Jazziz Magazine and selected articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Currently Tyrone Jackson is a professor at Kennesaw State University where is the artist in residence and teaches a muriad of classes
including: Jazz Improvisation II & III, Applied Jazz Piano, Group Jazz Piano.

Musical Education: University of New Orleans (Undergrad) Studied privately under Ellis Marsalis (renowned father of Wynton
and Branford Marsalis) and Mary Ann Bulla (classical); Jackson received his Master Of Music Degree from Georgia State University (Kevin Bales–teacher)

Robert Dickson, bass (Combos)

Originally from Montgomery, Alabama, Robert Dickson received a Bachelor of Music degree in classical double bass performance from the University of Alabama and a Master of Music in jazz studies from the University of New Orleans. He has worked with many jazz greats including Victor Atkins, Scotty Barnhart, Terri Lynne Carrington, Evan Christopher, Jerry Coker, Jorge Continentino, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Goodwin, Matt Lemmler, Mundell Lowe, Lou Marini, Jason Marsalis, Steve Masakowski, Irvin Mayfield, Davy Mooney, Paula Morelenbaum, Jacques Morelenbaum, Shannon Powell, Chuck Redd, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, Lew Soloff, and Johnny Vidacovich.

Dickson was adjunct instructor of bass at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary from 2004-2005. Since 2006, he has been an instructor with the Rialto Jazz for Kids program in Atlanta, GA and has directed jazz combos with the Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra of Atlanta since 2011. He has been an instructor of classical string bass at the Atlanta International School since 2013. He is currently in his 8th year as jazz bass instructor at Georgia State University.

Chris Riggenbach, bass (Combos)
Coming Soon!

Wes Funderburk, trombone (Big band)

Wes Funderburk has performed across the United States and Europe and is currently one of the most sought after trombonists and arrangers in Atlanta and the Southeast. He is the author of Funderbone.net and the inventor of Blog Songs! – his award-winning music blog and podcast. Wes has written, performed, recorded with a wide array of national and internationally-renowned artists including Jennifer Holliday, Band of Horses, Spoon, Jermaine Dupri, Cee Lo,The Boston Brass, Natalie Cole, Dallas Austin, SoShy, Kelis, India Arie, Slide Hampton, Joe Gransden, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra. He has also been a featured performer at The Atlanta Dogwood Festival, Atlanta Jazz Festival, Atlanta Black Arts Festival, Candler Park Festival, Inman Park Festival, Montreux-Atlanta Jazz Festival, Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Montreux Jazz Festival and North Sea Jazz Festival.

Wes’ recording credits include So So Def Records, Atlantic Records, Verve Records, Colombia Records, Universal Records, Arista Records, Giant Step Records, the Cartoon Network and the Weather Channel. His arranging credits include music for Russell Gunn’s Krunk Jazz Orchestra, Jennifer Holliday, Ben van Dijk, Natalie Cole, Joe Gransden Big Band, The Georgia Brass Band, The Atlanta Jazz Orchestra, Kenessaw State University jazz ensemble, Georgia State University jazz ensemble and brass band, the Piedmont Trombone Society and the Tempest Little Big Band. Wes is also the leader and co-founder of The Funderhorns – a freelance commercial horn section that has recorded in some of the finest recording studios in the country.

As an educator Wes has given clinics and master classes at University of Georgia, Francis Marion University, The University of North Florida, Georgia State University, Columbus State University (Ga), the Mars Hill Low Brass Retreat, Tanglewood Music Camp and numerous high schools across the Southeast. He maintains an active private studio for students of all ages and is currently the low brass instructor at the Atlanta International School. In 2007 Wes joined the faculty at Kennesaw State University as a jazz band director and in 2010 joined the faculty at Georgia State University as visiting lecturer in jazz studies. Wes earned his Bachelor’s Degree in trombone performance from the University of North Florida and his Masters’ Degree in trombone performance with a concentration in jazz studies from Georgia State University.

Wes is a governor for the Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy and a clinician and performing artist for Rath trombones and Facet Mutes.


Tuition & Fees

Application Fee (non-refundable): $25
RYJO Big Band tuition: $450
RYJO Combo tuition: $350
RYJO Concert Shirts: $40



RYJO operates from September through April each year, with auditions in August. Rehearsals are held weekly on Sunday afternoons from 4:30 – 6:30 PM (intermediate jazz combos only), and Monday nights (Advanced jazz combos – 6:00 – 7:20 PM, Big Band – 7:30 – 9:00 PM). For a full rehearsal schedule, please see the calendar.

Performances, Concerts & Field Trips

Each track of study holds two concerts a year, one in December and one in April.

Additional performance opportunities for both the Big Band and the Jazz Combos may arise throughout the course of the season. Previous performance venues include: Café 290, Churchill Grounds and the main stage at the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

RYJO students are encouraged to attend Jazz series concerts at the Rialto Center for the Arts. Students will be notified when discounted or free tickets are available.

Each semester, the group is invited to attend Café 290 to see Joe Gransden’s Big Band, featuring many of their faculty members. In addition, students may be invited to attend performances at Churchill Grounds in Midtown Atlanta or the Velvet Note in John’s Creek.