The roots of a jazz legacy

The history of Galesburg's jazz festival

April 4, 2012

Part of a series on Music

Members of the Galesburg community, and Knox students, professors and alumni crowded together to listen to jazz music in a spirit of fellowship and legacy at the 32nd annual Knox Rootabaga Jazz Festival.

This past Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, raucous jams and sultry tones could be heard from McGillacuddy’s and the Orpheum Theatre where the events were held.

The Rootabaga Jazz Festival, or ‘Baga, as it is affectionately called, was started by Mona Tourlentes. Tourlentes began as a jazz instructor at Carl Sandburg College and initiated the festival at Carl Sandburg in 1980. Her idea sprouted from her desire to bring more live jazz to Galesburg, so she began the program, adopting the turnip’s misspelled name from Carl Sandburg’s collection of short stories “Rootabaga Stories.”

Rootabaga lasted for a decade before it went on hiatus for a year in 1990 because there was no one to pick up the festival when Tourlentes retired.

No one, that is, until Scott Garlock came to Knox in 1990. Garlock expanded the jazz program at Knox, revived the festival and involved Knox in the event.

“I owe a lot to the people who started it,” Music Instructor and current director of the Rootabaga Jazz Festival Nikki Malley said.

Malley came to Knox in 2003-2004 and added her own style to the festival.

Each director has added their own character to the festival, Tourlentes brought in more big band jazz and big names, like Terry Gibbs and Joe Pass. Garlock brought bop and hard bop players, well-known soloists and improvisers and educators.

“What I have done that’s different than my predecessors is I’ve really strategically gone after new or young artists who really represent what’s happening right now in jazz,” Malley said. “I want our students, and I want the community, too, to see that jazz is not just an historical music, that it’s something that’s still growing and developing right now.”

Malley spends most of her summer looking for artists, and spends the rest of the year managing everything from fundraising, to equipment orders, to t-shirt and poster designs.

Senior and assistant to Malley, Lauren Smith said, “It’s definitely a balance. We can’t, you know, afford to bring the top act from New York … but she does a good job of finding these young people that are really, like, starting to take off.”

Smith gave this year’s headlining artist, Noah Preminger as an example, saying that they booked him in the fall, and then suddenly, “everywhere you looked, like Downbeat magazine and all kinds of websites and blogs and things people were, like, making end of the year lists of the top-ten albums and he was on every list.”

Associate in Applied Music David Hoffman said, “It brings the whole community together because you get these Saturday night concerts … at this point I think people in the community know that it’s going to be cool.”

But one of the biggest parts of Rootabaga is not just the joining of the Knox and Galesburg communities, but ‘Baga serves as a sort of Homecoming for Knox alumni.

Malley, a Knox alum herself, said, “I’m not sure I came back for Homecoming, but I know I came back for Rootabaga. That was on my calendar as soon as I knew what the date was.”

This year, the oldest alum was Cassie Hart ’97 and the newest alumni graduated just last year. The Big Band performance on Friday night gives the alumni a chance to reminisce and gives them a sense of nostalgia for their positive experiences at Knox.

“In years past they would actually gather at the Jazz House,” senior Josh Garties said, but recent administration policy regulations have not made this possible. He hopes that in future years they may be able to get alumni who come back for Rootabaga to be able to stay at the Jazz House.

“There’s a cool kind of generational thing,” Smith said. Associate in Applied Music Justin Heynes was her first sax teacher, but Associate in Applied Music Kevin Malley, who is her current sax teacher, was Justin’s sax teacher.

Hoffman said, “I don’t think [there is] anyone who’s come back that’s not still playing. It rarely happens because I think if you play an instrument through college, and if you don’t give it up after high school, then you’re probably going to play it for the rest of your life. Because it just becomes a part of you.”

Smith expressed mixed feeling about her final Rootabaga Festival coming to a close.

“Even though I’m kind of bummed out that this is my last ‘Baga as a student, I’m also pretty excited to get to come back next year and play with the alumni band,” she said.

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