Knox Vice President of Communications Megan Scott watched her 8-year-old daughter parade around the Galesburg Public Library’s event room. At the head of the parade, Lowdown Brass Band, in town for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival, performed “The Saints Go Marching In.” Scott recalled how parents and children from Knox and Galesburg participated while the group played.
“That was my favorite moment, because you were truly engaging with the musician. There really is that ability to bring folks together,” Scott said.
The Rootabaga Kids performance is one of many included in the annual Rootabaga Jazz Festival. Started by Galesburg residents in 1980, Rootabaga features nationally and internationally renowned jazz performers in Galesburg theatres. This year, the festival features vocalist Gretchen Parlato and trumpeter Victor Garcia. Rootabaga, “’Baga” to its fans, is the pinnacle event of the Knox Jazz Year, which includes artist residencies and performances throughout the year.
Interim Director for the Knox Jazz Ensemble Corey Heppner ‘10 agreed with Scott that Rootabaga united different people. Current students can connect with alumni, and alumni can connect with one another at the reunion of the Knox Alumni Big Band. Each year, in what Heppner calls “Homecoming for Jazz alumni,” Knox graduates spanning decades gather to put on a performance in the Rootabaga festival.
“When you’re in a band, you become like a family, family members you get to see once a year. It’s a ton of fun,” Heppner said.
Heppner also performed in the Jazz School Tour on April 4 and 5. In the tour, jazz artists visited seven local schools to perform and teach students about jazz. The tour took its place as as an annual Rootabaga tradition only three years ago, and Heppner referenced it as an important tool in connecting Knox and Galesburg.
Of the eight festivals Heppner has participated in as a student, alum and finally faculty, Heppner says each has seen more community attendance than the last.
“It’s easy to have this Knox bubble, but then when you come and participate in these events you see that there’s so much more going on,” Heppner said.
Andrew Crawford ‘00, the managing director for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival, described the education of children in the school tour as an important responsibility that Knox has as a part of the Galesburg community.
“We wanted to try and supplement music education in the schools, especially since so many things are getting cut,” he said.
Kelly Moyer, the music teacher at Neilson Elementary School, described how she uses the tour to help with her normal curriculum.
“I plan to read a few jazz books to my students and introduce them to some of the jazz greats. We will also try improvising and call and response techniques,” she said.
Moyer also coordinates with other teachers to help extend the educational impact of the jazz tour. The children can participate in an art contest along the prompt of “what Jazz looks like,” according to junior Jenn Erl, a member of the Knox Jazz Ensemble and one of the contest judges.
While recalling times she felt connected with people outside Knox, Erl mentioned the art contest first. She said that, to her, unique perspectives are the meaning of art, and when she saw the variety in the children’s pieces she knew that they could experience art just like she did.
“Different people can have different perceptions of music, and it was cool to see that coming from kids,” Erl said.
The winners of this year’s contest will be displayed on Saturday, April 8, in the Orpheum and Black Box theatres. Erl noted that getting the students involved encouraged more parents to engage as well.
It was with this goal in mind that the Rootabaga Jazz Festival used some of its Challenge America Grant to as many performances as possible free for the public. According to the Knox College Office of Communications, the only two required admission fees are five dollars for the Family and Friends Combo at Fat Fish Pub on Thursday, April 6 and $10 for the Friday night Victor Garcia Organ Quintet, also at Fat Fish. All events are free for Knox students with ID.
While mezzanine tickets can be purchased for $20, the Saturday night performance featuring Gretchen Parlato Quartet in Orpheum Theatre is free for the public. Crawford drew special attention to this, saying that the Rootabaga directors made “an effort to take away all economic restraints from people.”
As a father of three himself, Crawford said he knew how expensive family outings could be. He also said that families were the reason for the early, 5 p.m. start time of the performance. “It’s not too late of a night for kids,” Crawford said.
The Rootabaga participants agreed that driving the connections made through the library show, the reuniting alumni, the school tour and the free performances is the exceptional Jazz itself. Trumpeter Victor Garcia is “one of Chicago’s most versatile musicians” according to Rootabaga marketing. According to Crawford, Grammy-nominated Gretchen Parlato has been Rootabaga’s first choice for a performer for five years.
“When you find yourself at Fat Fish, and it’s packed, and people are dancing, or when you see world-class, mind-blowing jazz that transports you to other dimensions at the Orpheum Theatre. All it takes is one time to witness that, and you’re hooked,” Heppner said.