Every year, more and more stories pile in claiming jazz is dead. It has been this way for decades now, and the struggle for musicians in the genre is growing as they try to find a new way to inspire. For the last 36 years, the Rootabaga Jazz Festival has opened its doors to new and veteran musicians to come and impress with their skills. Through this method, they hope to reinvigorate a stagnant genre.
Nikki Malley, Associate Professor of Music and the artistic director of Rootabaga, sees jazz as an ever-evolving art form that is reaching a critical point. With so many styles being brought forth, she sees it as the best time to jump in.
“I personally think jazz is in its most creative, varied and diverse period ever in the 120 or so years of the history of jazz. I think it’s both a good and a bad thing,” said Malley. “It’s a little daunting if you don’t consider yourself a jazz fan to figure out where to start. It’s also extremely exciting, because if you don’t like one person’s direction with jazz, someone else is doing something completely opposite.”
Malley finds Galesburg to be an amazing venue to hold such a festival. Even with a genre that is losing steam, she finds that the town is inspired to come out and enjoy the music.
“As long as a town like Galesburg can have a week-long jazz festival, it’s hard to imagine that jazz is dying. It takes energy and it takes passion,” continued Malley. “Every year, I think that if we can just get people out and have a good experience, they are going to come back, but we need the right groups to come in. If we don’t, it may be the first and last time they ever listen to live jazz.”
The groups playing at this year’s festival are no novices to the scene. The manager of Rootabaga and director of jazz at Knox, Andy Crawford, is proud of the acts they were able to schedule and thinks this year may be one of the best. He stated that the headliner this year, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, is probably the biggest artist they’ve ever had.
“He has played with everyone, inside and outside of jazz, and is one of the biggest names in jazz right now,” said Crawford. “He’s won Grammys and is almost always voted the best drummer in jazz. The band has everyone involved in the festival excited.”
Another group coming to the festival is the band Matuto. Crawford expressed how they normally try to draw regionally, but Matuto is coming from New York City. They play Brazilian Bluegrass, which Crawford stated isn’t technically jazz, but it’s improvised music, which fits the theme. They play 220 shows a year and this year alone, they will be playing in China, Thailand, Cambodia, Azerbaijan and the US.
The final guest artist is Geof Bradfield. He’s traveled the world playing with different projects. His latest project is called “Roots,” and Crawford is very excited to showcase it live.
Alumni musician Kyle Kunkler ‘15 will be performing with the Knox Big Band, who had recently come off a tour in China. He sees the festival as a great way for the artists of the genre to reach out and show what jazz can be.
“The audience will get to experience a live concert of some of the best musicians performing today,” said Kunkler. “These are people presenting a current view of what it means to be performing improvised music in America and their view of what that music can be. I think people should be thrilled. It would be hard to find musicians of this caliber in the city, much less for free in Galesburg. It’s amazing.”
Rootabaga is soon to be in full swing, and the hype amongst the musicians of Knox is at an extreme high. The state of jazz is continuing to advance into different forms, and this festival is part of the mix to form its shape. With such renowned groups playing, it’s not hard to see why they believe this may be their best year yet.