Faculty voice:

Rodney Whitaker: Jazz Tradition and Innovation

May 7, 2014

Rodney Whitaker was a 20-year-old college student when he began performing with nationally and internationally renowned jazz artists in New York. At 26, he began working as an adjunct professor at MSU playing with Wynton Marsalis, touring the world performing and leading workshops for children and adolescents. Whitaker became director of MSU’s Jazz Studies program in 2000.

I wanted to create a program with a pedagogy that reflected the way jazz musicians learn, which is through the blues-based tradition of improvisation, through a familiar oral tradition, and through studying the history of America through jazz, particularly African American history. You can’t understand jazz if you don’t study African American culture.

We have a program that has a strong marriage of tradition and innovation. The idea is that through immersing yourself in the history and culture of jazz, you will find your own voice.

We also probably have the best mentoring system in the country. People leave here feeling empowered, feeling they have a mentor, someone who is there for them. Our motto in this program is, “Each one, teach one.” As soon as you get mentored, it’s your obligation to find a younger person and mentor them. We see grad students mentoring undergrads, older students mentoring freshmen. It’s part of the jazz tradition, and it’s what I grew up with in the African American community.

The biggest challenge in music is there is a hierarchy because you have auditions. But also we have jam sessions and open forums. I can have my office door open playing bass and the next thing you know there could be a student or two playing with me, one of whom could be a graduate student and one of whom could be a freshman. There is a hierarchy, but we try to knock those doors down.

In our next phase, we’re looking at more international initiatives. We’re looking to create satellite summer programs around the country and the world. We began an exchange with the University of Trinidad, and we’re going to try to further develop that. The thing that changed my life on the east side of Detroit was the fact that, at 20 years old, I started traveling the globe. Jazz has always been a music that brings down cultural barriers.

I’ve stayed at MSU because I share the university’s vision of giving opportunity to underserved cultures and communities throughout the United States and the world. We’ve been able to see students who are diamonds in the rough and help them develop themselves and go on to great careers. Conservatories tend to pass over students who have talent but just lacked access to private lessons. I couldn’t walk away from a place that’s allowed me to mentor so many students and change lives.

Our faculty performs all over the world. They’re the most sought-after clinicians and performers in the world—and we teach at MSU. Three of our faculty members were in the top 10 on the jazz charts in one year. It’s important that students know that they’re coming to study with folks who do this for real. We’re not just academicians—we do that too, but we have vibrant careers. And many faculty invite students to play with their groups so they get experience. Because of our faculty’s connections, we have five or six high-powered guest artists a year on our campus. They’re jamming with the students, doing master classes. You’d have to be in New York City to get this kind of access.

The jazz program is respected and supported from every level of the university. Everyone is committed to its success and that’s why I’m here—to build the very best jazz program in the world, with the university’s values. I think that the community sees that and it supports us 100 percent.