Professing Jazz

  • Rodney T. Whitaker
  • Jazz Studies Program
  • College of Music
Rodney Whitaker at work behind the double bass.
Rodney T. Whitaker

How, in a few short years, do you grow a modest undergraduate jazz studies curriculum into one of the strongest programs in the United States? How do you ... branch out from a standard classroom teaching model to one that embraces passing the torch of cultural leadership as well as musical expertise to the next generation? ... promote and celebrate diversity? ... nurture a love for music in young children?

If you are Rodney Whitaker, the answer to these questions is simple (though not necessarily easy): You improvise. Try something. Have a go. Give it a whirl. Take it out for a spin.

Twenty-five students from the mid-Michigan area took part in Summer Jazz Camp through MSU's Community Music School in 2008.  The week long camp, led by Professors of Jazz Rodney Whitaker and Diego Rivera, culminated in a performance at the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival on June 20, 2008.

Fortunately, improvising is exactly what Whitaker does best. Unlike most of us, he has the credentials for it, from Wayne State University as well as from years of performing double bass with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and other legendary jazz artists.

One of Whitaker's first enterprises after taking the reins of MSU College of Music's jazz studies program in 2000 was the MSU Professors of Jazz. The Professors are the College of Music jazz studies faculty, wound up into a tight "hard-bop" traveling band with a comprehensive outreach and recruitment agenda. They are the operative basis for a number of outreach activities within the College of Music as a whole, as well as for initiatives of the jazz studies program. The group offers concerts for young people, master classes, lecture demonstrations, residencies, and collaborative performances at festivals, clubs, and other venues.

The Professors are also the performing artists for another Whitaker undertaking, Jazz Kats: Jazz for Kids. This ongoing partnership with MSU's Wharton Center for Performing Arts is modeled after Jazz at Lincoln Center's highly successful programs for youth. Jazz Kats' narrated performances illustrate basic elements of jazz, dance styles that have evolved from the various eras of jazz history, compositions by artists who participated in the civil rights movement, and other themes.

The Professors of Jazz

For the past five years, the jazz faculty has been involved in a partnership with the Arts League of Michigan. Through this partnership, the Professors of Jazz run an annual jazz camp mentorship program for aspiring musicians in grades 9-12. They also conduct a regular concert season in Detroit, where Whitaker is artistic director of the Detroit Symphony jazz education program. "We get a lot of high caliber students from these programs," he said.

New directions at the College of Music include an increasingly collaborative relationship between the classical and jazz areas. Whitaker and Jack Budrow, who teaches double bass in the classical studies area, work together to prepare students for a greater variety of opportunities to perform and earn a living. Students have been enthusiastic about the unusual crossover, agreeing that proficiency in both genres is an advantage.

However, Whitaker cautions that passion is the only real key to success as a professional musician. "If you are dedicated, if you know you simply couldn't do anything else with your life, then the money will take care of itself," he said. "This is what I do. It's my life."

  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement

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