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“From Russia with Love”: John Garvey’s Russian Folk Orchestra

2017 American Music Month Exhibit

The University of Illinois Russian Folk Orchestra was founded in 1974 by John Garvey, who had joined the University’s Walden String Quartet in 1948 as its violist. In 1959, Garvey established the University’s jazz band program. Ten years later, the jazz band toured the Soviet Union as part of the State Department’s cultural exchange program. During the tour, Garvey developed a keen interest in Russian folk music. He later returned to the USSR to study Russian folk music traditions and purchased additional instruments which were later used to establish the Illinois Russian Folk Orchestra.

The Illinois ensemble eventually served as a model for other American universities’ Russian folk orchestras by providing open, depoliticized and educational spaces for students to pursue their interest in Russian folk music traditions. This exhibit provides visitors with an introduction to Russian folk music traditions and culture that was promoted by folk musicians, who immigrated to the United States after WWII, and by the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution. It also pays homage to many talented musicians who performed with the University of Illinois’ Russian Folk Orchestra under Garvey’s direction from 1974-1989, while revealing a forgotten part of the University of Illinois’ musical past.

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