Knox senior Steph Hawes is a veteran of the Knox Rootabaga Jazz Festival. Hawes, who plays lead alto sax in The Knox Jazz Ensemble, has been an active participant of the jazz department since her sophomore year. Returning to Rootabaga for the last time as a graduating senior is an ecstatic culmination of her student career as a performer, because the festival was the inciting event that precipitated her interest in jazz as a freshman.
Prior to her musical career at Knox, Hawes possessed no prior experience with jazz. But the Rootabaga Festival inspired her to become involved.
“I think it was just seeing everyone up on stage having so much fun together,” Hawes said. “It’s really a difference from being in a more classical setting, like I was in high school. It’s exciting!”
The 35th annual Knox Rootabaga Jazz Festival was replete with a variety of venues and atmospheres in which an audience member could experience jazz music on their own terms. With scheduled events spanning from April 9 to April 11, the festival’s offerings were engaging for anyone from jazz neophytes to connoisseurs.
Sophomore Monica Wichmann, who attended the Knox Faculty and Friends Combo at The Burg’s Bar & Grill on April 9 appreciated the laid-back ambiance of the event, which enabled the collision of socialization and musical appreciation.
“It was a really good, relaxing atmosphere… a place you could really enjoy yourself and enjoy the music without having to worry,” Wichmann said.
In addition to the mellow, adult-oriented atmosphere offered by The Burg’s Bar and Grill on Thursday and Friday evenings, Rootabaga offered a family-friendly event on Saturday morning called Rootabaga Kids. Hosted by the Lowdown Brass Band, Rootabaga Kids incorporated live jazz performance into an interactive, educational experience geared towards children.
The band discussed the hierarchical layering of instruments to produce a cohesive and balanced sound, a concept they refer to as “the brass band totem pole,” and emphasized the historical importance of brass bands.
“We’re trying to keep an American tradition of brass band music alive, and letting you guys know that, yeah, this is fun, but it’s also a very important aspect of our history as a nation,” said David Levine, baritone saxophonist for the Lowdown Brass Band.
Rootabaga Kids ended with a tongue-in-cheek funeral procession for the band’s mangled tambourine, but the climax of Rootabaga occurred on Saturday evening at the Orpheum Theatre, with performances by The Knox Jazz Ensemble and The Anat Cohen Quartet.
Featuring two Ella Fitzgerald-style vocal charts and a variety of soloists, The Knox Jazz Ensemble’s set list transported its audience backwards to a time of smoky dance clubs and grayscale films.
Junior Linda Sanabria, who plays lead trumpet in the ensemble, elucidated how the experience of the festival differs from performances throughout the year.
“Rootabaga is something really special. It’s probably our easiest and most relaxed performance, but it’s also our most professional, as odd and paradoxical as that may be,” Sanabria said.
Following the Knox Jazz Ensemble, the Anat Cohen Quartet took the stage and, despite recurring technical difficulties, dove into a series of alternately frenetic and languid pieces. The music was punctuated by Cohen’s fluidity, both as she explored the range of her instruments and as she writhed and swayed on stage.
Cohen’s performance was marked by the remarkably visceral nature of her reaction to the music — at times the clarinetist clutched her skull as though overwhelmed by the power of her work. Anat Cohen grinned, her expression profoundly satisfied.
“We have played all the notes that are in our mouths and on our fingers this evening,” said Cohen as the thrum and chime of the bass and piano faded.