Knox senior Gus Martini has long admired famous jazz artist Mark Guiliana’s drumming, especially his performance on David Bowie’s last album “Blackstar.” But he never imagined he would find himself sharing drinks and throwing darts alongside him in the Fat Fish Pub after Guiliana performed at the Rootabaga Jazz Festival this past weekend.
The festival’s public performances began in Fat Fish Pub Thursday night with the Knox Faculty and Friends Combo. Knox professors played jazz alongside musicians from Galesburg, Peoria and the Quad Cities. Since there was no other Knox faculty or associate piano player available, senior Zach Barnes filled in, playing four straight hours of jazz music.
“With piano, the wrist is the first thing to go,” Barnes said.
Barnes has been playing piano since middle school and in the Cherry Street Combo since his sophomore year at Knox. Barnes enjoys the festival because he believes it’s emblematic of the community’s close relationship to jazz.
“It’s pretty much a national marker that people take jazz seriously here and like it — in the college and the community,” Barnes said. “The fact that we can have enough money and do this many shows and bring in artists like Mark Guiliana — yeah, there’s people who care about it and love it.”
Associate Professor of Music and Artistic Director of the festival Nikki Malley also performed Thursday night on the vibraphone. After a few songs, Malley took the time to thank Knox adjunct faculty member and Managing Director of the festival Andy Crawford — without whom she said the festival would not have been possible — and point out members of the band who were former teachers at Knox, including Scott Garlock, one of the founders of the Rootabaga festival.
Garlock was a Knox jazz department faculty member from 1990 to 2003 — Malley was one of his students. He said the Rootabaga festival existed before but had been dormant for several years. Then one day he saw a man in town wearing a t-shirt from the former festival. After asking the man about what Rootabaga was, he had the idea to restart it.
“I thought it would be a great thing for the students. And it was an excuse also to hire really famous people since we live so far from everywhere — a really great excuse to bring in world class people,” Garlock said.
Garlock never thought Rootabaga would get as big as it is today. In the early years, he was just trying to survive organizing it. It was a struggle to get the money or ensure people would come. But once Rootabaga started attracting well-known musicians, it just kept growing.
Now 60, Garlock has been playing the trombone since he was in middle school. On Friday night after the Galesburg High School Jazz Ensemble’s performance, he performed with the Knox Alumni Big Band,which attracted alumni from a full range of ages.
Knox alums Brian Tanaka ‘15 and Alex Bell ‘18 are both drummers and former members of the Cherry Street Combo. They wanted to return to Rootabaga since the two featured artists of the festival are drummers, but also because Rootabaga provides an opportunity for them to play jazz again. After graduating from Knox, Bell said jazz is not in her daily life anymore. Now when she plays drums it is usually for church.
“I think for me, it’s the community. If I’m ever going to come back to Knox — I would say jazz is what filled me up most while I was here so to be able to come back to that and for it to still be intact and thriving,” Bell said. “I think [community is] embodied in the jazz festival that happens annually. For me there’s nothing like it.”
Friday night featured an electrifying performance by the Xavier Breaker Coalition. Rocky Yera, the saxophone player, used a vast array of pedals to warp his sound, at times sounding like a distorted electric guitar rather than a brass instrument. Also notable was the expression on electric bass player Ivan Taylor’s face as he played, for it was rarely in a resting position but rather an open-mouthed grimace, his head bobbing to the sound of the music.
A similar kind of countenance could be seen Saturday night during the Mark Guiliana Space Heroes performance. When Guiliana or other members of his band entered a long solo, the resting bandmates often placed their instruments on the floor and wandered off to the side of the stage. There, they would watch and shake their heads in admiring disbelief.
Guiliana also worked with the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Before performing one song with the Knox Jazz Ensemble on Saturday, Guiliana conducted a master class in the The Orpheum Theatre. Martini recalls Guiliana letting his drumstick fall down on top of his drum kit, and then creating a rhythm out of the sound that made; a way, he said, to garner inspiration. Martini said that, after loking through his years at Rootabaga, he most appreciates the humanizing aspect of being able to perform and personally interact with the talented artists the festival features.
“I think Rootabaga and the Mirza — Rootabaga especially — is a very big reason I think freshman year I stayed at this college,” Martini said.
Correction: Last week a photo was captioned tagging David Hoffman, when it should have said Todd Kelly.