Nov. 16 2016 12:50 AM

Music and life lessons from jazz master Rodney Whitaker

Whitaker has made many appearances at the Detroit International Jazz Festival and tours the world as an in-demand bassist, bandleader and composer.
Photo by Richard Cohen

A bass solo by Rodney Whitaker starts with a handful of notes that float into the air like a question. Urgently yet carefully, his hands reach out for a response. Melodies and countermelodies dart up and down, pushing the limits of his instrument in swifter and swifter sweeps, until the question is one with the answer.

Suddenly — almost too soon — the solo is over and the bass line resumes its long walk home.

The walk is always purposeful. Whitaker is not a solo artist.

MSU jazz ensembles have visited hundreds of inner city, suburban and rural schools across the state, often in the company of national guest stars like trumpeter Jon Faddis, seen here with Whitaker and students at East Lansing's Red Cedar Elementary in 2013.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

The 16-year director of Michigan State University’s Jazz Studies program has changed hundreds of lives, built MSU’s program into a national bastion of jazz and conjured a jazz scene out of mid-Michigan cornfields.

Sunday, Whitaker, 48, got a lifetime achievement award from the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan. Colleagues and students gathered to jam, bask in the glow and celebrate the world Whitaker has made.

‘My life has not been the same’

Joe Vasquez, a freshly minted MSU master’s graduate, gets very big eyes when you mention Whitaker. He came to MSU six years ago as a tuba player and didn’t even know how to hold a bass.

“I didn’t know what I was walking into,” Vasquez said. “Six years later, look at me, I’m a great bass player, traveling the world.”

Vasquez only went to MSU because it was close to his home in Michigan, where a member of his family was ill. So much for the idea that Whitaker and his stellar jazz faculty recruit top students, give them a final polish and go back to being jazz stars. Everyone in Whitaker’s program puts education first, himself most of all.

Sunday, Vasquez took part in a unique bass quartet tribute to Whitaker.

“My life has not been the same. This is crazy,” said Vasquez, who was just back from a West Coast swing that took him from San Diego to Seattle. “I never would have expected this. I have only Rodney to thank for it. I’ve never had another teacher.”

Since Whitaker took over the program in 2000, the number of majors has grown from 12 to about 70. There are so many MSU grads working in New York that they literally bump into each other. (That happened last week in Harlem to trumpeter Kris Johnson and bassist Endea Owens, both MSU grads, on their way to separate gigs.)

At MSU, Whitaker has assembled a round table of star jazz professors who earn Guggenheim fellowships, get into Vanity Fair photo spreads (trumpeter Etienne Charles) and win Downbeat awards (trombonist Michael Dease). They do that stuff on their own time, though, because teaching comes first on Whitaker’s watch.

Along the way, Whitaker has breathed new life into East Lansing’s two-day Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and kept up a rigorous schedule of outreach that takes MSU students to schools across the state.

It’s easy to forget how unlikely a project it was to turn Spartan country into jazz heaven.

Person to person

As recently as the 1950s and ‘60s, it was forbidden to play jazz in MSU’s music auditorium, according to College of Music Dean James Forger.

Open-minded professors like Owen Reed snuck a little jazz into MSU School of Music programs in the 1970s, but jazz studies started to take root only in the 1980s, when early proponents like pianist Ron Newman, bassist Peter Dominguez (now at Oberlin) and Australian-born saxophonist Andrew Speight came on the scene.

The director’s post opened up when Speight left for San Francisco in 2000.

Whitaker was already a part-time instructor at MSU, but he wasn’t sure about leading the program. His career was in full swing as a key member of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He was on top of his game, free to tour the world with the top bands of the time.

Married in their late teens, Cookey and Rodney Whitaker built a jazz life together, raising eight children while sharing mundane logistical tasks and musical highs.
Courtesy Photo

But on the other hand, he was ready to settle down with his wife, Cookey, and a growing family that now numbers eight children.

And there was one other thing.

“Because I didn’t have an academic background, a lot of people didn’t think I was qualified for this job,” he said.

Here we get into deeper waters. Barred from universities and concert halls for most of its history, unrecognized by academies and critics, jazz elders created their own schools, in kitchens and living rooms and on bandstands after hours. Universities without walls sprang up in cultural centers like New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Whitaker traces the tradition all the way back to the Mississippi Delta’s Dockery Plantation, widely considered the birthplace of Delta blues in the early 1900s.

“Charlie Patton, the father of the blues, taught Son House,” Whitaker said. “Son House taught Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf. They’re all from the Dockery.”

In Detroit, where Whitaker was born and raised, generous elders like bebop pianist Barry Harris encouraged and trained a generation of younger players.

At 19, Whitaker started playing an annual Kwanzaa concert series with Harris, who visited Detroit for the holidays each year.

“It would always spill into days of me being at his house and getting lessons,” Whitaker said.

When he tried to leave, Harris’ wife would ply him with food. She never saw Harris so happy as when he was teaching.

Along with New Orleans and Chicago, Detroit ranks as one of the great jazz cities, with a web of connections that has stretched across the world. Harris and other Detroit mainstays schooled a generation of players in the music called “hard bop,” the elastic, melodic, soulful successor to bebop.

“Miles (Davis)’s band, (John) Coltrane’s, Cannonball Adderley’s band, Horace Silver’s band — you’ve got one or two Detroit musicians in every hard bop band,” Whitaker said. “It’s a deep story. These cats from one stable of musicians changed the world. They changed music.”

In the mold of mentors like Harris, Whitaker says his goal is to teach 1,000 who teach 1,000 more. And he’s getting there.

Trumpeter Kris Johnson, one of the first cohort of MSU students who studied with Whitaker, is now director of jazz studies at Utah State University. He recalls his lessons with Whitaker the same way Whitaker talks about Harris.

“We just sat at the piano and talked about harmony, reworked some of my songs and he showed me his songs,” Johnson said. “It was more of a mentorship than it was formal teaching.”

Johnson said he now does the same thing in Salt Lake City.

The MSU Professors of Jazz surprised themselves with an unexpectedly incendiary take on "Stella by Starlight" at the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan's tribute to Rodney Whitaker Sunday. Left to right: Randy Napoleon, Diego Rivera, Whitaker, Etienne Charles and Randy Gelispie.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

At MSU, Whitaker saw the chance to harness jazz’s mentoring tradition to a major institution, with its stability and resources.

He also read up on MSU’s origins in Justin Morill’s Land-Grant Colleges Act and saw a chance to push back at a historic injustice.

“Martin Luther King had a big speech about how they created these land-grant colleges to teach European farmers but neglected the African-American,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker is not a man to waste seed. In his first years at MSU, he launched a relentless outreach program. Early on, Whitaker had to stretch infrequent grants and donations to the limit to keep the outreach program going, but it paid off. His efforts have been boosted in recent years by a $1 million grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union. Several times a year, MSU students, professors and star guest artists like Christian McBride or Louis Hayes barnstorm across the state.

“I’ve got the Octet I playing a little concert hall in Roscommon,” Whitaker said. “Inner city schools, suburban schools, rural schools — you can’t go anywhere in Michigan and they don’t know about the MSU jazz program because we’ve been there, we played in their opera house and went in their school.”

The breathtaking growth of the program and fruitful outreach efforts helped to earn Whitaker the title of University Distinguished Professor in 2013 — the youngest professor ever to get the honor.

Two years ago, Wynton Marsalis offered Whitaker the post of director of jazz studies at the Juilliard School.

According to Forger, MSU President Lou Anna Simon personally intervened, even though she was dealing with a death in the family. Simon went to Whitaker’s office and asked what it would take to keep him at MSU. Whitaker asked for two new appointments — one for guitar Professor Randy Napoleon and an events coordinator, Max Colley, who took on the logistical burdens of the proliferating tours, events and residencies going on at MSU.

“Sure, I think of what I might have done at Juilliard,” Whitaker said, “but the people here were willing to invest more in what I started.”

Armor and sword

For much of the 20th century, jazz was driven by a dizzying series of trends and movements that came in waves, each one swamping the last.

Whitaker embraces them all at once. He credits his early training in Detroit with showing him “how the music is all connected.”

Like many teenagers of his generation, he was fired up by the revolutionary music of Charlie Parker, late Coltrane and avantgarde artists like Roscoe Mitchell. But early Detroit mentors like Donald Washington stressed tradition as well.

Whitaker compared his 1996-2003 tenure with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis to graduate school. Some musicians criticize Marsalis’ approach as backward-looking, but Whitaker made the most of his time with Marsalis, steeping himself in the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other pre-bebop pioneers, often playing in the company of greats who were present at the creation of the music.

Whitaker wants his students to experience as much of that jazz panorama as they can, from stride piano through swing, bebop and avant-garde to the latest mixes of jazz and Indian music, classical, hip hop or whatever else is happening in the Spotify era.

“Think about all the music these kids get exposed to,” he said. “They’re learning Max Roach’s ‘Freedom Suite,’ Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ masterworks from Ellington and Strayhorn — where else are they going to learn it? What band? It’s not 1942.”

But in Whitaker’s world, it is 1942. And 1961. And 2016. MSU students have taken Whitaker’s inclusive brand of jazz all over the world. Beginning in 2012, saxophonist Marcus Elliot, trumpeter Anthony Stanco, pianist Paul Bratcher, drummer Jordan Otto and bassist Sam Cooperman — all MSU grads — became one of 10 bands, out of 300 who auditioned, to travel to Namibia, Botswana, Egypt and Jordan as part of the American Music Abroad program.

Lansing-born drummer Lawrence Leathers has hit the big time with regular work in New York, including tours with vocalist and rising jazz star Cécile McLorin Salvant. As one-third of cerebral pianist Aaron Diehl’s trio, Leathers has been holding forth at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village for about five years, attracting some high-profile fans and sit-inners like Wynton Marsalis, who recommended Leathers to Salvant.

“Those years back home at MSU gave me my armor and sword,” Leathers said. “Without those guys, I wouldn’t be out here.”

Since graduating from MSU in 2007, bassist Ben Williams won the genre’s most prestigious honor for a young jazz artist, the 2009 Thelonious Monk award.

“Rodney was almost like a father, as well as a professor,” Williams said. “I learned so much from him musically and personally, as a man.”

Williams went on to study at Juilliard and became firmly established in the jazz world, playing most recently in guitarist Pat Metheny’s Grammy-winning Unity Band with saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Antonio Sanchez.

Metheny was impressed when he saw that Williams had memorized the music, a skill inculcated in him by Whitaker.

“You can’t be out there turning the pages when you’re in a big band,” Whitaker said.

Diego Rivera, born and raised in East Lansing, is the only home-grown MSU professor of jazz. Under Whitaker’s aegis, Rivera blossomed from a shy, inexperienced teenager to becoming assistant director of jazz studies, a thoughtful composer and a fearsome, nationally recognized saxophone player.

“I don’t think I could do what I do, the way I’ve done it, anywhere else,” Rivera said. “We have an interesting relationship. He’s able to go from mentor to friend to colleague, and he does it gracefully.”

Whitaker directs a student big band at a Wharton Center concert in 2010. Since 2000, Whitaker's first year as director, MSU's jazz program has grown from 12 to about 70 majors.
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse

Despite the program’s professionalism, there’s a family feeling to everything Whitaker touches.

“Together they have built a community of students,” Forger said. “They hang out, they mentor, they perform together. I think it’s a very unusual circumstance.”

“Cookey is an incredibly important part of this,” Rivera said. “She’s seen me grow up, develop as a musician, become a father. She’s given me advice too. It’s hard for me to think about Rodney without thinking about Cookey as well.”

Tied to slavery

Utah State's Kris Johnson has noticed that some programs “try to teach black art without teaching black history.”

“That’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This music is tied to slavery, to all of the events that have happened to the black community over the years. You can’t teach one without the other.”

Whitaker has set a tone at MSU that harks back to his own time with mentors in Detroit. No subject is off the table in classes and one-on-one lessons.

Last week, Whitaker, Rivera and the other jazz professors found themselves consoling students who felt crushed by the 2016 election results. Some students wondered aloud whether it was worth bothering with music any more. Rivera reassured them their Jazz Octets concert Friday was probably the first time some audience members had smiled since Tuesday’s election.

“It’s done with dignity and respect,” Rivera said. “Students feel comfortable asking potentially volatile questions about race, about society, in the space Rodney has created at Michigan State.”

“I try to provide a place where people can say whatever they want to say,” Whitaker said. “You’ve got to have a place to talk it out.”

Whitaker knows that despite the success of so many MSU jazz studies grads, most will not end up playing music professionally.

“I’m teaching a life skill,” Whitaker said. “I’m giving them certain information. That’s what I got from my mentors. They had so much wisdom that was beyond music.”

As a teenager, Whitaker asked one of his mentors, Herbie Williams, how to know when to stop a solo.

“He told me: just when you think you can play another chorus, that’s when you should stop,” Whitaker said. “Think about that on another level.”

With that, Whitaker rose from his chair, heeding Williams’ advice. It was time for him to move out of the spotlight and walk on. There’s work to do.