Jan. 30 2013 12:00 AM

$1 million gift to MSU Jazz Studies program is a 'game-changer'

As seductive in college as it was in the clubs, jazz has long had the power to coax open a well-placed wallet, but a recent gift from the MSU Federal Credit Union to Michigan State University’s Jazz Studies program is in a class by itself.

The $1 million endowment, announced earlier this month, will bring national jazz artists to MSU for weeklong stays or longer.

“It just blows your mind when you think about the possibilities,” Jazz Studies director and bassist Rodney Whitaker said.

The guest artists will work with students, tour the state together and strut their stuff at concerts in East Lansing, beginning this fall.

For Whitaker and his growing jazz program, the gift hits a big three-note chord. Students will get quality time with a variety of top guest artists, from established legends to little-known masters to innovative up-and-comers. Schools and town halls across Michigan, many hit by music budget cuts, will get a rare hit of uncut jazz.

And at long last, Lansing-area audiences will get something like the permanent big-name jazz concert series that has eluded doomed area promoters since the 1980s.

As a grace note, MSU President Lou Anna Simon expects the guest artists and tours to spread word of MSU’s jazz program, and other area assets, all over the map.

Simon said the gift is part of the credit union’s “long history of supporting the performing arts as a critical part of being a cool region,” including support for the Wharton Center and its outreach arm, the Institute for Arts & Creativity.

Jazz patronage in wealthy circles is nothing new. In the 1950s, ultra-hip “bebop baroness” Pannonica de Koenisgswarter, a rebellious Rothschild with a passion for blue notes, loaned out her Rolls Royce and New York crash pad to musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

She and Monk even got busted together for possession of marijuana. Are the suits in MSUFCU´s executive offices secretly swiveling to Bird and Diz?

“Credit union board members are always at our concerts,” Whitaker said.

April Clobes, executive VP and chief operating officer of the credit union, said that’s irrelevant.

“We don’t make decisions based on our personal interests,” Clobes said. Impact, she explained, is the key criterion in the process. Clobes said the board of directors found the gift’s three-pronged benefit to MSU students, outstate schools and local audiences offered maximum bang for the buck.

“A local resident can attend a performance of somebody that normally performs in New York, that they may never get to see, at a price they can afford,” Clobes said.

Dean James Forger of the College of Music said the gift fills the only significant gap left in MSU’s jazz program: geography.

“Obviously, we don’t live in a major metropolitan area,” Forger said. “Students can’t walk down to the Blue Note or the Iridium.”

Until now, Whitaker leveraged his national prominence and professional ties to bring artists like Wynton Marsalis to MSU, but the credit union endowment opens the field dramatically for “a big school in a small town.”

“We’ve had people all along, like Wynton and Branford [Marsalis], but we want to expose our community to some new names,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker’s wish list cuts a broad swath, from badass octogenarian drummer Roy Haynes, who has played with every jazz great from Charlie Parker to Thelonious Monk, to 34-year-old experimental soul/jazz/hip-hop piano alchemist Robert Glasper. He’s also eyeing Detroit-born piano veteran Barry Harris, saxophone titans Lou Donaldson and Joshua Redman, composer/arranger Maria Schneider, and Cuban titans like multi-reedman Paquito D’Rivera and pianist-bandleader Chucho Valdez. 

“It could even be John Zorn,” Whitaker said, naming the New York avant-klezmer-punk reedman few people thought would make it to East Lansing this side of the Last Judgment. “It’s about giving our kids and our community a different experience.”

Whitaker pointed out that jazz education, more than many disciplines, depends on interpersonal contact and mentoring. Before he was 20 years old, as a budding Detroit bassist, Whitaker played with a series of touring jazz greats and Detroit stalwarts at places like Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. As the club scene shrinks, he explained, it becomes harder for young jazz musicians to get that kind of exposure.

“Positive feedback from these great artists gave me the confidence to hang with the big boys in New York,” Whitaker said.

On a typical visit, a guest artist might come to East Lansing on a Sunday, work with students in the classroom Monday and Tuesday, barnstorm the state from Wednesday through Friday, and return, finely tuned, for a wrap-up concert in East Lansing Friday or Saturday. 

The residencies will start with one or two in 2013-14 as the $1 million is doled out in installments. When the endowment is fully funded in 2015, Whitaker expects to host four residencies a year.

Whitaker said the gift crowns a “five-year plan” he drew up three years ago, when he was the only tenured professor on the Jazz Studies staff. Since then, professors have come and gone, some working part time, some less suited to academia than others.

“When we’ve had transition, it’s been because there hasn’t been the kind of commitment to the community or to the students Rodney should expect,” Forger said.

Last year, piano Professor Reggie Thomas came to MSU from Southern Illinois University, brought on board as a full professor. Saxman Diego Rivera, trumpeter Etienne Charles and trombonist Michael Dease are all on the tenure track, and drummer Randy Gelispie is a full-time instructor. With his Round Table (or is it the Justice League?) in place, Whitaker expects the guest artist program to take the program to the “next level.”

Forger said the timing is “superb,” not just because of the jazz program’s stability, but also because the $20 million renovation of 550-seat Fairchild Theatre in mid-campus, future home of most College of Music events, is set for completion this fall.

Whitaker said he’s lucky to be “in the right place at the right time.” 

Simon begged to differ.

“Rodney is respected and known internationally as a jazz musician, but has a passion for teaching young people,” she said. “That combination is rare.”

After Simon made the $1 million gift announcement at the Jan. 20 Martin Luther King jazz tribute, she hustled to the back row of the Pasant Theatre with her jazz-loving husband, Roy, knowing Whitaker’s enthusiasm might make a quiet exit necessary. (They had a prior commitment.)

“We know that Rodney tends to go well beyond the time we’ve given him, because he so enjoys working with the students to find that next riff,” she said.