Friday, September 16, 2016

RODNEY WHITAKER: THE JAZZ BASSIST ON BEING ONE OF THE CATS, COMING OF AGE IN DETROIT & WHY JAZZIN' ON THE RIVER IS A MEANINGFUL MUSIC FEST

Rodney Whitaker
Rodney Whitaker has played jazz festivals big and small globally. Whitaker has built quite the reputation in Michigan, his home state, and internationally as a high-ranking jazz bassist and music educator. Whitaker, 48, held the bass chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra six years, made seven well-received albums as a bandleader, and has run the Jazz Studies program at  Michigan State University for over a decade now, building it brick by brick into one of the most respected music programs nationally.
 As a sideman, his work history includes stints with marquee bandleaders such as Bob James, Roy Hargrove, Dianne Reeves, Jimmy Cobb, Mulgrew Miller. Hell, an entire afternoon could be spent reciting all the bands he’s gifted with his boundless music acumen and knack for drawing the best from musicians who share the bandstand with him.

Whitaker is part of Jazzin” on the River, a compact and serious jazz festival in Detroit stacked with some of the city’s best jazz talent. Whitaker wants it on the record he’s proud of being a part of Jazzin' on the River. The festival takes place Saturday at Alfred Bush Ford Park on the Detroit River in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.

There’s an after-party at Atwater in the Park. The festival has added meaning for Whitaker because it’s in the neighborhood where Whitaker grew up and dreamed of becoming an important jazz musician, or in his words, “I always wanted to be one of the cats”. Wednesday evening, Whitaker let I Dig Jazz pick his brain about his coming of age in that eastside Detroit neighborhood, his thoughts about the Grosse Pointe Park, Detroit controversy, and the occasion of the re-release of his first albums “Hidden Kingdom,” and “Children of the Light”.  
What was it like back then, growing up in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood? Was it vibrant musically? Were there other jazz musicians who were coming up at that time? I heard saxophonist JD Allen is from that neck of the woods.
Oh yeah. JD lived near the park. He lived on the eastside but over by Burns near that park where the kids play baseball. He lived in a different neighborhood. In my neighborhood, one of the first musicians I ever saw play live was the great Perry Hughes. He grew up a couple of blocks from me.
He was in the neighborhood, and there was a guy on my block who he had a funk band with. They were teenagers. I met Perry before he even became a jazz musician. I was a little kid back then. We go way back , so we're from the same neighborhood.
Also the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. I don't know if you're familiar with that group?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
That's where it started at Remus Robinson Middle School in that neighborhood. Donald Washington [saxophonist] was my middle school band director. What happened was that he got laid off, and then somebody new came in and became the music teacher. He kept the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now together, and I got into the group when I was in ninth grade, we used to rehearse in Harris Park, in the recreation center.
That's where we rehearsed and then we started rehearsing later at his house. He was teaching on the west-side and then James Carter got into it when he was about thirteen. It started in that neighborhood.
Some great jazz musicians came through Bird-Trane-Sco-Now! such as Cassius Richmond, and James Carter.
Cassius and I grew up like three blocks from each other. We went through elementary, middle, and high school together. He was a couple of years older than me. A lot of the musicians from our middle school went to King High School, and I followed them there a couple of years into it.
You’ve played jazz festivals big and small nationally and internationally. With smaller jazz festivals such as Jazzin’ on the River, which you’re a major part of, what does playing a small festival mean to you?
I think historically when you think about jazz festivals all over they started after World War II. The Paris Jazz Festival started in 1948 or 1949. It was a way to bring tourism back to Paris. Traditionally jazz music has been used to revitalize economies all over the world, to help tourism, and it brings these hot musicians to those places, and then tourists will follow them. I think it's befitting that we use the music the same way in the urban communities, taking the music back to where it came from.
If it can bring awareness to a community, even if there's an issue of blight, or it needs to be revitalized, maybe people might come and see something and go home to their neighborhoods, and fall in love and want to buy and fix up a home, or do some renovation, or do some building. There's some building going on in parts of my old neighborhood where people are building houses. I think anything that you can do that creates a positive environment, you know, why not use the music?
You’re headlining the festival’s Jazzin’ after-party, which is also a big part of the festival. It seems as if the festival’s organizers are trying to mend the divide between Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit. I don't know if you're aware where Grosse Pointe borders Detroit was barricaded.
I saw it with my own eyes.
What're your thoughts about that situation? How they're trying to use the festival to bring Detroit and Grosse Pointe closer?
I have to keep my eyes on that because I'm a pretty forgiving person. If things are going to change, somebody's got to do it. One side of me, when I saw that barricade in the disguise of a fruit market or whatever it was, I was in shock. I was eating, and I wasn't aware of it. I just knew I was driving, and I had to go around it.
So, I drove around it.  I didn't know what it was at first. I was doing kids' concerts in Detroit, and I didn't want to go to a Coney Island for lunch because I wanted a salad. I went to a middle-eastern place right there in the beginning of Grosse Pointe. Then we realized what it was, and we went and took pictures of it. It was just reminiscent of apartheid in South Africa. That's one mindset that I struggle with, but at the same time, anything that we can do to bring people together is a positive thing.
We can be critical, but I think definitely in the mind of Dr. Martin Luther King, he had to humble himself a lot of times. I'm glad that people spoke up on it, but I'm also glad that people are trying to do something to bring change. I wasn't even aware that this performance had something to do with those politics, but at the same time, somebody's got to do something to bring change. If something like a jazz festival can make us be more aware of our shortcomings and try to fix it, I think it's a good thing.
When you were asked to participate, was there any initial reluctance given what you had witnessed?
For me, that didn't even feed into the equation. Again, I'm a musician, and I play gigs all over the planet. There have been official boycotts in places where I didn't necessarily go. There was a boycott in South Carolina at one point. There was a boycott in Arizona at one point years ago. A lot of the artists that I work with wouldn't go there to play. I definitely support that.
What are some of the projects you have in the works? Are you working on a new album?
Yeah, I'm in the process of putting together a new album. Hopefully, I'll be recording it in the next couple of months. If not, probably in the early part of the New Year. My goal is to put out another album in May or in June. My first recordings [“Hidden Kingdom” and “Children of the Light”] that I released twenty-something years ago just got re-released in Japan, which is quite a nice thing. They put them out on CD.  That was cool because I made folks aware of it on facebook and I had 3,500 people who wrote me and didn't know about the CD. Those two CDs that had Geri Allen, Nicholas Payton, and all those great cats.
What was the occasion for the reissue?
I was doing a tour. Carl Allen and I were playing last spring in Japan. We were doing a gig, we had my daughter [vocalist Rockelle Fortin], Xavier Davis, and myself, and we were over there playing at the Coffee Club in Tokyo.
The new producer, a young lady I can't think of her name at the moment, came out to the gig and expressed interest in wanting to put out the first two CDs. The second CD, I think it was that she wanted to put out. I started talking to her about the first one, and she wasn't aware of it. Then she got excited about it and went back to the vaults and checked it out and decided to put both of them out at a reasonable price.
Do you still keep a full teaching schedule?
I do a lot of teaching nationally, and I do a lot of touring, playing nationally. Whether it's with my group, or with Carl Allen, then I do a little freelance stuff. I'm playing with Lewis Nash a couple of times this fall with his crew. I'm keeping busy. I'm recording with a lot of people, so it's busy, and it's a challenge to try and juggle it all, but I have the support of my wife. I couldn't do it without her.
Going back to your formative years, growing up in Detroit, did you envision becoming as accomplished as you have become?
I always wanted to be one of the cats, since I was thirteen. That's when, as I always tell my students, the jazz bug bit me. Nothing else was going to do. I wanted to be one of the cats my whole life. I had no other plans
I would always have people say to me that I should be a lawyer, a doctor, and all that stuff. I studied music education and all that sort of stuff. I just wanted to be a musician. In a haphazard way, I eventually became a teacher. That was something my parents were more proud of me than me being a musician. Because to them, that represented stability. That's what I am until I die. I'm going to do this forever until I can't do it anymore.
That was my dream. That's always been what I wanted to be. I wanted to be one of the cats. And my old neighborhood man, to be honest, was encouraging. People would see me catching the bus with my bass. They would tell me to keep going man, do your thing. That they were proud of me, and there were a lot of great cats in that community who had great record collections that they would share.
I had a neighbor in that community named Charles Darling, and he got me listening. He saw me with an upright bass, and he'd say hey, come check this out, check out this record. He helped me to start my record collection.
Listening is everything when you play jazz. He used to turn me onto Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, you know. I was thirteen, and he had me listening to Ornette Coleman.
I remember the first Ornette record I got was “Love Call” with Jimmy Garrison. I was maybe fourteen when I bought that. You know how Detroit is all about the music. Everybody's got a collector's taste. If they weren't die-hard jazz cats, they would be listening to Roberta Flack and all those early records she did. Just something musical. People in that neighborhood always turned me onto something.
For me, it was always like a beautiful experience. Maybe until I was a teenager, the neighborhood was beautiful. It was a beautiful place with parks and a river. You've got three parks in a row in one neighborhood. People were keeping their houses nice. Then in the mid-eighties, crack came in, and just took the whole place down. People were still trying to live. They were still trying to keep their humanity and keep their property together. It's an interesting dynamic.
Jazzin’ on the River is Saturday September 17th at Alfred Brush Park 100 Lakewood St. Detroit, MI 48215 12:00 PM-8:00 PM/ 9:00 PM Jazzin after-party 1175 Lakepointe, Grosse Pointe Park 48230

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