It was 8 o’clock on Thursday night and the music spilled out the doors of a small everyman’s bar and onto darkened Cherry Street. Most Thursdays, this music would come from one of Knox’s student combos, but last Thursday was different. Last Thursday was Rootabaga Thursday, and it was the Knox faculty’s turn to shine.
This was no Jazz Night. This was the 30th anniversary of the Rootabaga Festival. Going strong for 15 years at Knox, Rootabaga brings together the entire community of Galesburg for a week of non-stop jazz from regional, national and internationally acclaimed artists. Although originally housed at Carl Sandburg College, Knox College took over the role when professor Scott Garlock began direction of the festival in 1992. As the years progressed, it became more involved in the community, teaming up with schools and businesses to put on educational clinics and workshops for high school and college students. In fact, more than half of the festival’s costs are funded by big businesses around the area. Most of this funding goes towards meals and equipment for the performers.
I followed the sound of the chaos through the bar doors to find a completely packed room of people with all eyes onstage, where Kevin Malley broke open a smooth solo on the alto sax.
Not too far behind him, Brian Zeglis provided a sleek Latin rhythm. To Jake Dillon’s left sat Andy Crawford, his bass lines combining with the drums to hold together the group during the dizzying complexities of Malley’s solo. Malley emphatically finished up his solo, while, to his left, Dave Hoffman entered the conversation with a blissful trumpet line.
In the back, Nikki Malley stepped in on vibraphone to take over the next break. Once Nikki gave her two cents of musical wisdom, John Miller’s magic touch on the guitar provided a pleasant interruption to her right. Finally, next to Miller sat Danny Leahy, who resolved on a high note at the end of the round with a crisp piano solo. The crowd went wild.
Thursday’s “Jam Session” was primarily composed of Knox faculty musicians. However, this year it also featured other fantastic visiting musicians from central Illinois, including Jake Dillon, Hannah Malley and Danny Leahy. In the spirit of jazz, I suppose, the combo does not really practice together at all before hand and there is no set list, according to Malley, the vibraphonist and organizer of Rootabaga. They simply pick up their instruments and begin playing the first song that comes to mind.
In fact, they rarely get a chance to play together. It is perhaps a testament to how great these musicians really are that their repertoires are large enough and their improvisational skills developed enough to pick up on most standards.
Malley also feels privileged to have had the Matt Wilson Quartet, who played on Saturday, participating this year. She says the quartet is “jazz for people who don’t like jazz,” perhaps evidenced by their various pop song covers.
Overall, Malley believes that what makes Rootabaga special is the fact that it creates community. It’s a time of the year when both Knox and Galesburg can connect.
“Alumni come out, people come out to see friends … it really shows the ability of the arts to bring people together,” she said.