'Up South' stories
|By Lawrence Cosentino|
Rodney Whitaker premieres jazz suite at Creole Gallery
Music gets under, on top of, and into the cracks of a story the way words can’t.
“Up South,” an hour-long suite by the Professors of Jazz that premieres Saturday at the Creole Gallery is the opposite of a dry Black History Month lesson.
Crafting a five-part mosaic of the great emigration of Southern blacks to the industrial cities of the north, composer/bassist Rodney Whitaker had to dive into cross-currents of racism, hope, self-destruction and forbidden love.
“To me, music is about drama and a story,” Whitaker said.
“Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it?” “Up South” is a personal project for Whitaker. His mother is from Jacksonville, Fla., and grew up in Albany, Ga., while his father is from Leesburg, Ga.
“They moved ‘up South’ to Detroit,” Whitaker said.
The title phrase alone packs the dislocation, irony and mixed emotions of the great emigration into two words.
“In a city like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis or Chicago, most of the people that end up in your neighborhood are from down South — so we call those cities ‘up South,’” Whitaker explained.
To begin the suite, Whitaker evokes the story of a cousin who never should have left Albany, Georgia.
“He was a church boy,” Whitaker said. “When he moved to Detroit, he became the opposite of his upbringing. He sold drugs, became a pimp. The urban experience blew his mind.”
The suite comes out swinging with a hard-driving rhythm called The Big Four, a sound that defined jazz in its earliest years and is well suited to the swagger of high life in the big city.
“The Big Four,” Whitaker’s title for the tune, has a darker meaning as well.
One afternoon, four policemen dragged Whitaker’s cousin to a Detroit park.
“They beat him down, cleaned him up, put him on a Greyhound bus back to Georgia, and told him to never come back.”
“It was like the police force in South Africa,” he said. “They’d pick people up and you’d never see them again.”
In Whitaker’s treatment, the story takes on subtle and surprising shadings.
“If you know him, it’s kind of funny,” Whitaker said. “It was unfortunate, but it changed his life for the better.”
Between rare opportunities like the current Creole series, Whitaker flexes his storytelling skills on film work.
“There has to be some thought or idea before I can write,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who can just sit down and write music.”
“The thing that kept resonating in my head was a mother’s cry,” he said. “So that’s what I wrote.”
“Up South” is centered on jazz, but it may also be the most ambitious showcase yet for Whitaker’s lyrical, humanistic style.
“Every town had a mentor that taught all the kids,” Whitaker said. “Most of these guys were from the South.”
The tune has three melodies – trumpet, tenor, and alto sax — moving together in counterpoint.
“I don’t usually hear music that way, but it felt right for this piece,” he said.
The last movement will bring the “Up South” theme home to the Creole audience.
Busby was born in Lansing, but he spent much of his youth in Martin, Tenn., before returning to his native city.
Michigan State University Professors of Jazz present Rodney Whitaker’s ‘Up South’