‘Great oaks from little acorns grow,’ a 14th century proverb, is very applicable to the Reno Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. The oldest educational festival in the western United States, its mission is to provide a stimulating and educational environment for jazz students, jazz educators, and jazz supporters who gather each spring at the University of Nevada, Reno campus.
John Carrico, Sr., joined the music faculty at the University of Nevada as Director of Bands in 1959 and organized the university’s first “stage band” in 1960. He became the founder of today’s Reno Jazz Festival when he launched the first annual University of Nevada Stage Band Festival in 1962. That event was held in the Church Fine Arts Building and featured five bands. It drew an audience of about 250 enthusiasts. Just two years later, 28 bands participated, and the estimated audience of 2,500 people enjoyed a performance by guest artist Doc Severinsen. By 1965, the festival was Number 2 in the country in terms of the number of bands participating.
In 1971, a vocal division was added, and the program’s name became the University of Nevada Jazz Ensemble Festival. By 1973, the program was the largest educational festival in the United States. That year, with 300 groups from 12 states and Canada, events were held at six locations in Reno. The growing number of participants and supporters continued to fill regional hotel rooms and bring tourist spending to area businesses.
The name was changed to the Reno International Jazz Festival in 1976, with guest artists from England and Bulgaria. The festival was carried live over KUNR, and parts of it were broadcast nationwide in Greece. In 1978, festival founder John Carrico, Sr., received the Greatest Contribution to the Arts award from the Gazette-Journal Critics Award program, which recognized the festival as “… the first event to put Reno on the map in the arts world.” He was the first American to serve on the International Jazz Federation.
Through the years many University students, faculty and staff have participated in the festivals, including the Nevada Contemporary Music Ensemble, UNR Big Band, Ed Corey, Larry Engstrom, Peter Epstein, Hans Halt, Chris Money, Francis Vanek, and jazz pianist and composer David Ake, a past Director of the UNR School of the Arts.
In 2004, festival attendance exceeded 10,000 for the first time, with 337 groups participating. Estimated economic impact for the Reno area has been over $2,500,000 from 2007-2010, despite the national recession. An estimated 300,000 students, parents, jazz lovers, and festival staff participated in the festival during its first 50 years.
The University Archives’ Reno Jazz Festival collection (NUB 24/06/26) includes official programs, a timeline of guest artists, and sound recordings for many of the festivals. The accompanying photograph collection (UNRA-P3590) includes many photographs taken by Pat Glancy, who has been the ex-officio photographer for the festival since the 1970s. From one music professor’s interest and organizational skills 52 years ago, the Reno Jazz Festival has indeed matured into a cultural high point for northern Nevada, enriching the lives of students, their families, and the general public along the way.