Oak Park's award-winning children's musician, Jim Gill, is an ebullient songwriting, banjo-playing performer whose joy in making music for young kids is contagious — ever since his first album 20 years ago.
Since he composed and performed his first collection of "play songs" in 1993, Gill's repertoire of child-centered and participatory tunes has taken hold here and across the country, via performances at libraries, schools, and in auditoriums large and small.
Based on input he has received from teachers and librarians nationwide, Gill guestimates that one of his classic musical games, "Silly Dance Contest," has reached millions of children over the years. Performing with him these days is usually 68-year-old Don Stille, the Chicago jazz accordionist who says playing with Gill makes him feel like a kid again.
Gill, 49, emphasizes that the point of all this is early childhood development for all kids, regardless of their abilities, by encouraging musical group play with the adults who love them. Sometimes the songs are "low brow" and other times turn "high brow-ish," as in 2005 in his hometown of Rockford, when he collaborated with Oak Park composer/jazz clarinetist James Falzone to premier their Symphony of Sneeze" with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. (Watch it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5vzSoOEMsc.)
Sneezing and singing
Earlier this month in Oak Park, about 50 locals piled into Val's halla Records, 239 Harrison St., for his free holiday concert. It featured a few all-time favorites from the 20th Anniversary edition of his first album, Jim Gill Sings The Sneezing Song and Other Contagious Tunes. Initially released on LP vinyl in 1993, the award-winning Anniversary Edition CD is re-mastered for enhanced sound quality. It features the 15 original tracks, plus two bonus tunes. It is available at Val's and at Magic Tree Bookstore, 141 N. Oak Park Ave., or from Gill at www.jimgill.com (for $16).
Gill urges everyone to shop local because "Oak Park is lucky to have that." And so is he. Twenty years ago, those proprietors carried his first long-playing record and audio cassette, which gave him his start.
Now one of the consistently top-selling independent children's music CDs on Amazon.com, fans as far away as Costa Rica are singing, clapping, spinning, whistling and aaah … aaaah … aaaaah … CHOOing with him, too.
"Teachers and librarians were the first people to discover my songs, and I've been fortunate that they have used my music in classrooms and library programs since the days of the record player," says Gill, who is also a credentialed early childhood specialist.
To celebrate all this, he created the anniversary edition CD and will be taking it on the road for a 2014 Contagious Tunes Tour. That will include an appearance at Oak Park's Wonder Works Children Museum, 4 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 26.
"Jim Gill? Well, over the last couple of years I have become very close to the entire Gill family, to the point where they hosted a fundraising event in their home for me a year ago. I consider them my angels," said Val Camilletti of Val's halla Records just prior to the in-store holiday show.
"But way before that," Camilletti adds, "I had carried Jim Gill's records and CDs for years in our South Boulevard store, and he actually christened this stage in our Harrison Street location in 2006 when we had had a bunch of little kids around, and some of them were sitting on little stools and the floor. They were behaving so beautifully, just staring at the stage. It was 25 minutes before Jim even got here [and] they were just waiting for Jim Gill."
A seminal moment came at age 20, when, for a part-time gig during his college years, he was asked to "lead weekly little play groups, music play, for families who had kids with special needs at this really great agency up in Evanston called Lekotek," Gill recalls.
Another watershed moment arrived in 1992, when he received a master's degree in child development from the Erikson Institute in Chicago. Those two life events, he says, set the stage for his life's work.
"So my little niche after 20 years — I have to say I don't know anyone who is as good at this as I am — is simply having that song or book become an opportunity for adults, teachers, grandparents, and parents to play it together with a child. So I am doing something a little different, a little more focused," Gill says.
Kathleen Hepburn, 43, a former teacher at Wonder Works in Oak Park, says that, on-the-job and at home, her two children have grown up with Gill's music. At his recent holiday concert, it was her niece's turn.
"I like that Jim Gill's music is really interactive," Hepburn says, "and everyone gets up and moves around — although it can be a bit embarrassing because I really like the Silly Dance Contest song. Everyone can do that."
The serious work of child's play
In addition to his six award-winning CDs, in 2006 Gill wrote and published A Soup Opera, which was illustrated by David Moose. Four years later it received the Notable Children's Book & Recording Award from the National Library Association.
"My favorite moments about this book are when dads tell me how they read it to their child, and just laugh," says Gill, who has two daughters and resides in Oak Park with his wife Sue (daughter Ella, a student at OPRF High School, is also making a musical name for herself). "A lot of teachers have the kids act it out, so for them there are a lots of ways to use it. It is a book you can playfully read or sing, and then actually play it, like a sing-along opera, which is the idea behind doing my books."
In 2002, he wrote his first award-winning children's book, May There Always Be Sunshine. Based on the Russian folk song of the same name, it is illustrated by Susie Signorino-Richards, and is still used by preschool teachers in their early literacy curriculum.
Lynda Shadrake, who popped into Val's for the show, said she was having her goddaughters for an overnight, and thought, "What a perfect thing to do." Her favorite tune, as an adult, is "Truck Stop" because "there is just something about trucks going and stopping," she says, laughing.
The song is on Gill's latest CD, "Music Play for Folks of All Stripes," which was selected by the American Library Association as a 2012 Notable Children's Recording.
"It is this crazy word-play song about trucks that stop and go," he explains, "and during it, everyone is doing creative movement, and literally when I made up that song game, I was at a truck stop, which is a restaurant where there are a bunch of trucks stopped."
When he writes his songs, he tries to imagine what the song would be like in a room with 15 families — including a kid with special needs, a kid without special needs, moms and dads, grandmas — and how it would look if everyone was singing and playing it together.
Oak Parker Rito Martinez says he brought his 6-, 7- and 9-year-old sons out for the energy of it all. "You put Val's halla and a Jim Gill holiday kids' concert together, we are here," he testifies.
After the concert, 6-year-old Madeline Walski, with an ear-to-ear grin, says she is a loyal fan who has been singing Gill's songs with her mom since she was a baby.
"I liked dancing in the Silly Dance Contest, and I even got a CD of it," the Lincoln School first-grader reported. First I did this [adopts a crazy pose] and then this [another one with outstretched tongue] because I like being funny."