The annual Rootabaga Jazz Festival enters its 39th year this week. A five-day series of jazz music performances, Rootabaga culminates Saturday afternoon at the Orpheum Theatre, highlighting the renowned drummer Mark Guiliana and
his group SPACE HEROES. Music Administrator and managing director of the festival Andy Crawford is particularly excited about this year’s lineup.
“This year is probably our biggest name artist that we’ve ever had at Rootabaga maybe: Mark Guiliana — who is probably most famous for being the drummer on David Bowie’s last album ‘Black Star,’” Crawford said.
The festival will showcase performances by the Knox Jazz Ensemble on Saturday at the Orpheum at 5 p.m., and Knox faculty, friends and alumni at Fat Fish Pub on Thursday and Friday night. The Galesburg High School Jazz Ensemble, along with distinguished drummer Xavier Baker, will also perform Friday night at Fat Fish. Earlier in the week, The Nikki Malley Quintet will be touring local schools, and sharing more jazz and creative workshops on improvisation. All performances are free for Knox students.
Malley has been the Artistic Director of Rootabaga since 2003, but she has been involved with the festival since she was a Knox student. Malley enjoys that the Rootabaga festival represents jazz made by various groups of people, not cordoning off student musicians from professional, and brings together local and national artists.
“So there are Knox students there, there are high school students and their families, there are Knox faculty, Knox staff, Galesburg community members — and it’s everything from the young 30-year-old couple with their three kids, to the 85-year-old guys sitting at the bar,” Malley said. “It is everything I love about being here in Galesburg, all those people in the same place and there’s not a whole lot of times when that happens, even in a community this small.”
Rootabaga is supported through the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as by the Galesburg Community Foundation, Knox College, the cultural events community and individual/business sponsors.
Crawford said that these deliberations help bring Knox and the community closer together. All of the events take place in the community, not on campus. And the festival is specifically designed to be accommodating to Galesburg residents. Saturday’s concert at the Orpheum is free and scheduled at 5 p.m. to relieve parents from the need to hire babysitters. Xavier Baker’s Coalition is slated to have a presentation Saturday morning in the Galesburg Public Library for children who may be unable to stay awake for Baker’s midnight performance on Friday.
“We’re trying to make the music as accessible as possible. We don’t want to have any economic restraints to people,” Crawford said. “People can come out for free, with their family, and listen to world class music.”
Both Malley and Crawford agree that most communities of Galesburg’s size do not typically showcase music festivals of Rootabaga’s caliber, attracting distinguished musicians and bucking the expectation that only major cities or colleges can host such festivals. Crawford believes that Knox, as well as the arts community in Galesburg, all play a role in making Galesburg into a hub for music.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, The Nikki Malley Quintet will tour through many local elementary schools. Each visit will include a musical performance as well as a talk focusing on the structure of jazz so that students may better understand what they are listening to. Malley likes to teach students about improvisation by creating tunes out of the syllables of their favorite foods, pet animal names or favorite activities — turning their words into rhythms and those rhythms into melodies.
Malley believes that Rootabaga is significant for this reason: it increases the exposure people have to jazz music and thus to creativity. The most enjoyable part of Rootabaga for Malley is allowing people to hear the vibrant and innovative parts of jazz, in accessible places like the Orpheum.
“I think the more jazz that’s out there, the more live jazz that’s out there, the better the world is,” Malley said.