It’s First Friday, and the Arts District is buzzing. People wander the streets, shop from vendors, enjoy food, watch artists and musicians. You can hear the faint sounds of jazz coming from the corner of First Street and Boulder Avenue, where the asphalt serves as a stage. A young saxophonist plays covers of current songs while the original track lingers in the background, coming from the speakers behind him. The setup is not flashy, but the music draws pedestrians in. Small crowds form as onlookers come and go.
Twenty-year-old saxophonist Diego Morales (@thediegomorales) was born and raised in Las Vegas, and First Friday has been his stage since 2012. Tonight he’s wearing black from head to toe, a look that projects elegance and class. His straight black hair peeks out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat. The magenta-colored lights flash on the gold hoop that dangles from his left ear. As he plays, his body sways and bounces to the beat. He tenses up, shuts his dark eyes, scrunches his nose, and puffs his cheeks when he hits the high notes.
Morales’ years of dedication to his music, and to First Friday, are finally paying off, as what was once just a hobby is now a lifestyle.
In the past, Morales was a student at CSN who took part-time jobs while performing on the side. He spent his spare time playing at restaurants, malls, birthday parties, corporate events, anniversaries, weddings — even funerals. Since the end of 2018, he has become a full-time musician, with residencies at Green Street Kitchen at the Palms and Beer Park at the Paris.
It was in November, though, that his big break came when he was offered a spot in the band of Frankie Moreno, the Las Vegas musician and chart-topping singer.
One night last August, exhausted from a gig the night before, Morales reluctantly agreed to play at a family friend’s 50th wedding anniversary party. He made it through the evening with what he thought was a mediocre performance. Tony Moreno, who plays bass in his brother’s band, happened to be there, though the two didn’t meet. Morales headed home, tired, and grumpy that he wasted his night playing for free.
The following week his phone lit up with a message from an unknown number: “Hey Diego. I saw you play sax at a 50th anniversary party last week. Sounded great man! My name is Tony, I play in a band with my brother Frankie Moreno. Where else are you performing?” Who’s Tony Moreno? he wondered, disregarding the message. It’s not the first time he’s gotten an inquiry about joining a band. “It usually ends up being like three dudes in a garage,” he says. A couple of days later, his dad told him to be alert for any incoming messages about his performance the previous weekend. He had heard that a local musician who was at the party would be contacting him. Morales checked his phone again, casually mentioning to his dad that someone named Tony Moreno had reached out, whoever that was. There was a sudden change in his dad’s demeanor. He sternly explained that Frankie and Tony Moreno were among the top musicians here in Las Vegas. This was in fact a legitimate offer.
Morales immediately responded to Moreno’s text, and a week later Moreno comped him to one of the band’s shows at The Smith Center. Morales happily accepted. After the show, Morales joined the band for dinner at Chubby Cattle, a Chinese hot pot restaurant.
A couple of months passed before Moreno sent another text. The wait was worth it, though. The text invited Morales to play a few shows with the band in Arizona. This time he responded immediately. During those November performances he apparently proved himself. He had officially joined the Frankie Moreno band. He now performs with the band regularly, at the South Point hotel-casino as well as at The Smith Center. When asked about how long his time with the band will continue, Morales joked, “Until I get kicked out or it dies.”
None of this means he’s forgotten where where it all began, at First Friday. He still plays there frequently, digging the atmosphere. “It’s a giant dance party,” he says.