In my last installment I talked about jazz as being in the moment, the soloist improvising on the spot. Today let's talk about the Reno Jazz Festival (RJF), an event over 50 years old built to last by educators passionate about jazz. For those not familiar with the RJF, school jazz bands from all over the west come to Reno to compete; middle school, high school, and college bands, small ensembles, and choirs. Last year this included 320 groups representing 140 schools from 7 western states! As it is a three-day festival, you can guess there is a lot going on all the time. But it does not end with the student groups competing. This year kicking things off is a Thursday evening concert featuring guitarist Lage Lund with UNR's faculty jazz quintet the Collective. After a full Friday of student performances at venues all over campus there is an evening concert in Lawlor Events Center featuring the GRAMMY award-winning group Snarky Puppy. They fuse a deep knowledge of the jazz tradition with new sounds and concepts that reaches out to the most critical or carefree audience. Saturday, after another full day of student performances is, to me, the highlight of the whole festival, the Saturday evening Festival Showcase. Featuring performances by RJF All-Star Performers competition and encore performances from some of the highest-rated groups of the festival you hear the future of jazz, performed by some of the most talented student musicians on the planet. You will not believe the excitement, dedication, and level of musicianship on display, don't take my word for it, go and hear for yourself.
I forgot to mention that the Reno Jazz Orchestra performs a free lunchtime concert in Nightingale Hall where we announce our annual UNR jazz scholarship recipient. If you have never been to the festival, come see our free concert, get the vibe of the festival and if you like it buy a ticket for the Saturday concert. You will not be disappointed. I should also mention I participated in the RJF as a high school senior and twice in college way back in the 70's. It was a great motivator to learn and love jazz.
At the top of this article I mentioned educators with a passion for jazz. Let's meet three of them. The festival was the brainchild of John Carrico, Sr., UNR's Director of Bands. In 1962, Dr. Carrico created the Reno Stage Band Festival which hosted 5 high school bands and a final concert featuring UNR's Stage Band with guest artist Louis Bellson. Dr. Carrico believed strongly in the importance of cross-fertilization among different styles and cultural interpretations of jazz. He facilitated an unprecedented exchange of talent with U.S., European and Mexican groups, earning the festival a national reputation for nurturing and transmitting jazz concepts to students and their teachers. With the passing of Dr. Carrico in 1979, his son John Carrico, Jr. took the helm. John was a full-time attorney making it difficult to devote the time to maintain the event. So, he reached out to Dr. Larry Engstrom, new to UNR, and in 1991 Dr. Engstrom became the Festival Director, a position he held for 25 years.
Here are some of his thoughts on the festival:
"As a high school student, coming to the Reno jazz Festival was one of the highlights of the year. We came all 4 years, so I got to see some great musicians and attend valuable workshops. Just as important for a kid that age was seeing other high schools perform. It really opened my eyes as to what was possible at that age.
As an instructor I learned even more. Watching other directors is instructive, and of course picking up tips from folks like Michael Brecker, Chick Corea, and Maria Schneider isn't too shabby either! Not to mention being able to perform with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Konitz, and many many others. That kind of very personal interaction was incredibly educational for me (and fun!).
Serving as director of the festival for 25 years has provided me with some of the most meaningful memories of my life. The opportunity to befriend and interact with 50-60 amazingly talented guest artists and adjudicator/clinicians from all over the United States each and every year has been a joy and a privilege."
Many thanks to Dr. Engstrom for keeping a great jazz tradition vibrant. Now let's go hear some jazz!
Visit the festival website to learn more and purchase tickets.