The Reno Jazz Festival inspires students from all over the West
When Nina Wine was attending Wooster High School, she had only a mild interest in jazz and formal music education in general. After her band class attended the annual Reno Jazz Festival at the University of Nevada, Reno, she witnessed a performance by Professor Peter Epstein. When she arrived at UNR as a student, Wine knew she wanted to take lessons from Epstein, who later convinced her to major in jazz performance. Now, four years later, Wine and her classmates in the student big band the Free Radicals are preparing to open for Peter Apfelbaum and the Dafnis Prieto Sextet on April 27, two acts that are emblematic of the more modern direction the jazz program has taken in recent years to prepare its graduates for careers as performers.
“They have one foot in a very contemporary mindset and one foot in a very historical mindset,” said Epstein, chair of UNR’s music department, about the student band. That combination, he added, is a reflection of the program as a whole.
Epstein came to UNR for his master’s degree in 2002 and was hired by the department in 2005. Like most of the faculty, he was and still is a working musician. He’s performed in cities like Portland and Los Angeles, and he cofounded the School for Improvisational Music in New York with longtime associate and fellow UNR professor Ralph Alessi—who serves as director of the student big band. He and other professors regularly invite professional musicians to come and offer personalized lessons for UNR students.
“In New York, you wake up every day, and you sense that you are surrounded by many, many people trying to do the same thing, and it’s a built-in reality—you don’t really need a reminder,” said Epstein. “In a place like Reno, it’s a little bit easier to become complacent or to have a harder time gauging where you are relative to the sort of scene or the world that you want to get into.”
Employability for the modern jazz musician, however, doesn’t rely solely on a contemporary skill set, Epstein said. As jazz nears almost a century since its inception in the American South, knowledge of the traditional styles and midcentury standards remains a common expectation, and versatility is a valuable commodity for booking shows.
“You might have a gig where they really do want it to sound like it’s 1958. … We want our students to be able to do that,” Epstein said. “But we also want our students to be ready for any kind of contemporary styles or trends or philosophies or concepts within the music, and a lot of programs really don’t try to incorporate that stuff.”
Epstein said that UNR’s jazz program has the resources to offer its students a degree of career advice that smaller programs may lack. He also believes that the Reno Jazz Festival remains an important resource. It was born from the city’s heritage as a show town and rooted in academia but is increasingly receptive to nontraditional acts like the progressive jazz/rock act Kneebody, which played the fetival in 2014.
“This year with Dafnis and Peter Apfelbaum, I would say they are musicians who strike a similar balance, who have very strong roots in very grounded traditions, but are always very innovative and immediate in what they do,” Epstein said.
As one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country, The Reno Jazz Festival draws up to 10,000 participants from roughly 300 schools all over the West Coast. It has served as a unifying event for students spanning generations.
“I’ve talked to so many musicians who, wherever they are, if they’re from the West Coast, they almost for sure came here when they were in high school, middle school or college,” Epstein said. “So, for so many musicians, the Reno Jazz Festival is a part of their early careers.”
For some musicians in the Free Radicals, playing at the Reno Jazz Festival marks an auspicious occasion, as they recalled watching the band’s performance as high school or middle school students.
“I had come up here for the jazz festival like every year when I was in high school to participate in it,” said Julien Knowles, who grew up in Fresno, California, and is a junior at UNR majoring in jazz trumpet performance. “I would go watch the college big band and college combos and stuff like that, and that would be cool because at that point in my life it was what I could be looking forward to doing in a few years.”
Knowles said that performing in the festival gives him and his peers an opportunity to play for a crowd of thousands—atypical for a jazz concert. Even more valuable to his career growth, he said, are the connections he’s made to the jazz community.
“Now, I actually have a good relationship with a good number of those adjudicators and guest artists and clinicians,” Knowles said. “At that point when I was in high school it was like, ’Oh man, I get to play in front all of these people who’ve never heard me before.’ Now it’s kind of like the home field advantage.”
Kim Rubio, a senior jazz trombone performance major, also noted that, since the arrival of Alessi two years ago, there’s been more of an emphasis within the Free Radicals on practical matters such as performing and networking. That’s increased her confidence in finding work farther afield, she said.
“I guess, in my first couple years here the faculty was very academic focused, so everything kind of felt that way,” Rubio said. “It felt like I was practicing really just to pass this test in this class or be able to play the song in big band. Ralph’s very supportive about trying to get us to be the gigging musicians we’re in school for—kind of removing the academia from it and getting back to being a performer.”
Rubio and Knowles both have plans to leave Reno after graduation, and Nina Wine is planning to move to Japan in August to teach music—a move that she says her time at UNR has prepared her for. In her final year performing as a student at the jazz festival, however, she’s focusing on those who will come after her.
“I’m the Reno Jazz Orchestra Mentor Program Coordinator,” Wine said. “I’m sending professional jazz musicians into local middle and high schools to work with their jazz bands to increase the number of local schools attending the jazz festival. The jazz festival draws a lot of people, but often Reno schools are not participating.”
Wine cites a lack of funding and time on the part of local high school band directors for Reno students missing the festival in their own backyard. She believes the answer is to actively send the jazz community into the classrooms to engage the next generation of students. She may even return to Reno someday as an educator to inspire local students.
“I don’t think any kid goes into music because they want to play scales,” Wine said. “They want to perform. They want to show off. They want to have fun with it. My longtime goal is to establish an arts high school somewhere. Reno would be a great place in the next decade or so.”