Servers decked out in the new, blue Rootabaga t-shirts and Mardi Gras beads, squeezing past the seven chairs parked at a four person table while contented customers tapped fingers or feet to the music was a common sight at the 31st annual Rootabaga jazz festival.
This three day festival kicked-off with the Knox Faculty and Friends Combo at McGillacuddy’s, which normally hosts a jazz night on Thursday evenings. Even the first night it was packed, forcing some to sit in the back room, away from the stage, and others to stand around rather than find a table.
Here, students and Galesburgians gathered to hear the experienced chops of faculty or private lesson teachers like Dave Hoffman. Even in the back room, the music carried well to a table of freshmen. Some, like freshman Amanda Axley, come out to McGuillacuddy’s almost every week to hear the combos at McGillacuddy’s. Others, like Franz Huebner, were coerced by friends to come check out the jazz scene at Knox.
Axley has recently joined a Knox jazz combo after having played piano for 12 years. A native of Macomb, she had heard about the Rootabaga Jazz Festival prior to this. She has been excited for this festival since attending Knox. She was particularly excited to hear the Knox Alumni Jazz combo, which performed the second night.
The Knox Alumni Big Band, conducted this year by Justin Haynes ’05, returns for one performance every McGillacuddy’s year at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival. Haynes conducted the ensemble for the first time this year. Currently directing at ROWVA High School in Oneida, IL., Haynes led the alums through a strong night of jazz. The alums kicked off the night with an hour of big band music and some killer alto sax solos.
The Alumni Band was followed-up with the Funky Butt Brass Band. Coming from St. Louis, this New-Orleans style jazz band kicked McGillacuddy’s up a notch. Formed in 2008, six musicians gave all the funk their name promises. Seasoned professionals, Knox Jazz Ensemble (KJE) members, like freshman Kailee Gawlik were inspired by their cool and confident nature. “I definitely did not want to miss this, they’re just so talented,” freshman Vicky Hallberg said.
The Funky Butt Brass Band had performed in the famous St. Louis Mardi Gras and impressed the Knox students and Galesburg residents, but the feature event occurred the next day at the Orpheum Theatre.
All term, KJE members like freshman (and TKS staff member) Ivan Keta, had been prepping for their concert at the Orpheum. Keta described KJE as a big-band arrangement. Keta began playing the sax eight years ago, and got into jazz in high school, but this is the most intense he’s seen jazz band.
Keta is part of three combos as well as a member of the larger KJE ensemble. The members of KJE came out to support other performers and sell tickets, tabled at Knox lunches, and sold merchandise to help support their programs. For a freshman, Keta said that “jazz has probably shaped me more than any other experience here at Knox.”
Other KJE members, like Gawlik, also helped out by performing with the alumni band when they were in need of additional trumpet players and helping to set up the stage for fellow jazz musicians.
Directed by Nikki Malley, the Knox Jazz Ensemble tore up the stage, featuring every section in at least one of their 14 song set. This was the best part of the festival for Huebner. “They’re all really talented musicians and I just really like hearing them,” Huebner said, though he admittec that “jazz isn’t really my preferred genre of music.” After being coerced into a three day jazz festival, Huebner had been converted into appreciating jazz and KJE a little more.
The festival finished with a bang, featuring the Julian Lage Group, starring Grammy-performing, child prodigy Julian Lage. Lage performed moving, contemporary, original jazz pieces and left the audience wanting more as he mixed in classical, pop and jazz techniques into one exhilarating act.
Axley said, “It was just an overall, great experience. It’s a wonderful thing to see great music combined with assisting small businesses and popping the notorious ‘Knox bubble.’” She stressed the importance of involving faculty, alumni, Galesburg residents, and students in a common love of jazz musicianship.