Jazz pianist Mona Tourlentes founded the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in 1980 in an effort to bring a piece of Chicago’s vibrant jazz scene to Galesburg. While the festival features visiting artists each year, Associate Professor and Chair of Music Nikki Malley, who has headed the festival since 2004, wants to preserve the sense of community that makes Rootabaga unique. Performances balance visiting talent with local players and over the past few years Malley and Managing Director of the Knox Jazz Year Andy Crawford, who joined the festival in 2012, have focused on educational outreach in the Galesburg community.
Malley likes to feature artists that are cutting edge but still accessible to the general public. Chicago bassist and composer Matt Ulery, who performed at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday with his quintet Loom, specializes in a synthesis of jazz and classical music. This year, Ulery wrote a custom composition for the Knox Jazz Ensemble (KJE) called “Left Window,” adding a new level of collaboration to the festival.
“I’ve never had this experience but I hear that if you get a suit custom tailored it’s this amazing thing where it actually fits your body and that’s how this piece feels. He literally wrote it for exactly the people that are in that group,” Malley said.
Ulery visited Galesburg to get a feel for the group’s unique makeup in January. This year, junior Zachary Barnes is the only trumpet player in KJE. Since Barnes also happens to be a talented pianist, Ulery wrote a part for him that is half piano and half trumpet. Ulery worked with KJE to create a piece that felt “easy and beautiful.”
“The first time it felt kind of weird because there were some atypical harmonic shifts but after playing it a few times I really got used to it and enjoyed the sound,” Barnes said. “And it was really cool that he wrote this for us. I’ve never been a part of anything like that.”
Because of the focus on educational outreach, Malley also tries to choose artists who are willing to work with children. The other visiting artist, composer and alto saxophonist Greg Ward, has a children’s charity based in New York, called JazzReach. The organization brings multimedia presentations on jazz education to schools throughout the United States. Ward performed his reimagining of Charles Mingus’ album “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” at Fat Fish on Friday with his band Ten Tongues. Additionally, Ward played for children at local elementary schools and the Galesburg Public Library.
In 2015, Rootabaga received its first Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Crawford said the purpose of the grant is to bring the arts to disadvantaged communities. It has helped Malley and Crawford make more Rootabaga events free, including the Saturday night concert at the Orpheum Theatre. The grant allows visiting artists to perform at public schools throughout District 205. Last week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Greg Ward and three local artists visited five Galesburg elementary schools. In each school, Ward gave 45 presentations that incorporated aspects of performance and jazz history.
“He taught them about how blues and jazz grew up together and how blues is used in jazz and kind of taught them about how emotion can be expressed in music and about the blues form and call and response,” Crawford said. “So he had all these kids – the biggest school was almost 500 kids – doing call and response with him and learning melodies and singing along with the blues form.”
On Saturday morning, Ward led the kids in an interactive lesson on themes and musical terminology. After each song, he explained different aspects in ways the kids could understand. Barnes, who played the final song with Ward, said at least 70 kids showed up to the library. Barnes explained how Ward was able to adapt songs off his new album like “Daybreak” to an educational environment.
“There’s a melody in [‘Daybreak’],” Barnes said. “It’s kind of hidden but it becomes very prominent as the piece progresses and he made everybody sing it and kind of pinpoint where that melody starts.
Over the past few years, Malley and Crawford have expanded Rootabaga events mainly through educational outreach. Junior Lindsay Smith, who sang a Paul Weston arrangement of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Cheek to Cheek” with KJE on Saturday, has helped with Rootabaga outreach programs over the past few years. Much of Rootabaga’s success depends on its student volunteers, who do everything from checking IDs at Fat Fish to selling merchandise to judging children’s drawings of jazz.
“I think a lot of it is focused around education and welcoming people into the jazz world because a lot of the time it can seem exclusive,” Smith said. “And just showing kids that this is something they can do and that this is something they should enjoy is I think really important.”
This year, the Galesburg High School Jazz Ensemble participated in Rootabaga for the first time. After participating in a jazz festival at Illinois State University last year, the group’s director contacted Crawford, asking to perform alongside KJE.
“I was really impressed. It was such an eclectic group,” Barnes said. “There was tuba and violins and multiple people on every instrument.”
All Rootabaga performances are held off campus. Crawford feels that having events out in the community fosters a sense of inclusivity. Malley feels it signals that the events are not college-restricted. However, she also hopes that Rootabaga encourages Knox students to get out into the community more often.
“I went to Knox in the 90s and actually getting off-campus and being involved in the community – at first through the combo that plays jazz night – I met people in the Galesburg community I never would have met before,” Malley said. “I didn’t feel like I lived on campus, I felt like I lived in Galesburg.”
Malley said there is a misconception that jazz is not well received in small, rural or Midwestern towns. Because of this stigma, artists like Ward and Ulery generally do not visit towns like Galesburg. It also makes Malley’s task of bringing her favorite artists to new audiences even more rewarding.
“When a group or an artist who I think is amazing is playing and I know that a bunch of people who wouldn’t have experienced that otherwise are getting to experience that it’s the very best thing for me personally and hopefully a little bit for them too,” Malley said.
Malley said the crowd at Rootabaga tends to be around one third Knox students and two thirds Galesburg community. While Malley would like to see more students attend the festival, she appreciates that attendance skews more toward Galesburg residents.
“I’d love to see that Knox component grow but I also think that’s the reason we’re in the 38th year here,” Malley said. “There’s no way we could have a jazz festival in a town this size if the town wasn’t into it and so that’s a good sign that we have those numbers.”