The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz was conceived in 1989 as the dream of a group of local business people who wanted to establish a significant event for their town and region - an event that would be unique and that would attract many tourists to the area. An annual jazz festival was suggested, and a Feasibility Study was commissioned. This concluded that, although there were numerous jazz festivals in Australia (most emphasising traditional and mainstream jazz), there was the opportunity to base one on modern and contemporary jazz - "If the standard of performance was consistently high". In addition, it was recommended that such a festival incorporate a competition for young musicians.
Launched in 1990, the Festival was immediately hailed by critics, musicians and fans as the best jazz festival in Australia : a reputation that has been confirmed and enhanced in the years since then. The Festival's artistic director, Adrian Jackson, has consistently assembled programs that demand uncompromising excellence from performers, while presenting a balanced showcase across the range of jazz styles, but with an emphasis on modern, contemporary jazz. At the core of the program are the National Jazz Awards, featuring a different instrument every year.
Today, artists from around Australia are honoured to be invited to perform at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, and artists from many other countries recognise the Festival as a prestigious one to attend. The festival boasts over 100 performances by local, national and international acts, involving more than 200 professional musicians and many local performers, 11 venues and the largest annual Blues program at any event in Victoria.
The Festival has won numerous tourism and sponsorship awards. In 2000, the festival was awarded the status of Victorian Hallmark Event, recognising the significance of the festival to the Wangaratta region and to Victoria.