Bassist extraordinaire Rodney Whitaker is not only a world-class player who's appeared on hundreds of albums over a career spanning decades — he's also equally celebrated as a jazz educator. Currently a professor of double-bass and director of jazz studies at Michigan State University's College of Music, Whitaker has taught master classes at numerous institutions — among them Duke, Howard, the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa — and been a featured presenter at the International Association for Jazz Education. Whitaker is best known to jazz fans, however, as a superb accompanist and versatile stylist who has been featured on so many albums even he has lost count.
"I was on 20 recordings last year at least," Whitaker tells the Scene. The long list of his sessions covers every jazz idiom from hard bop to swing, mainstream to the avant-garde, with contributions to output by vocalists, small combos and large bands.
Whitaker recalls playing in Nashville with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra back in the '90s, and he's thrilled about his date this week at the Steinway Recital Hall.
"I love working with top musicians, and all these people, from what I hear, are really good," say Whitaker. He'll be playing in a group featuring Rahsaan Barber on saxes, Rod McGaha on trumpet, Roland Barber on trombone, Bruce Dudley on piano and Marcus Finnie on drums in a concert being promoted by Rahsaan Barber's Jazz Music City Records.
Whitaker, who started as a violinist, says once he heard some jazz recordings as a teen, he made the switch to bass.
"I knew I had found my calling," he says. "It was comfortable for me musically, made me really concentrate and want to keep playing and learning. That's the whole thing about jazz: It's a music that demands concentration and dedication."
After attending Wayne State University, where he studied with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's principal bassist Robert Gladstone, Whitaker began making his mark in the '80s and '90s with trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Marcus Belgrave and Roy Hargrove. His 1996 debut, Children of the Light, was widely praised for its fine writing and spirited playing. It was with Hargrove that Whitaker initially began doing some private sessions, before eventually becoming fully involved with jazz education.
"I see it as mentoring — developing the next generation of jazz musicians — the way the guys did for me when I was coming along," Whitaker explains. "I think there's plenty of interest in jazz out there among young people once they get exposed to it. But all the cuts in music education at the lower level has hurt. I don't feel there's any less desire to play today than there was when I was coming up, but there are fewer opportunities."
In fact, Whitaker has some interesting ideas to impart to his students.
"Improvisation isn't magic," he says. "You can learn anything. Some people have more defined senses of rhythm, others have better ears, but you can be taught how to improvise. One thing that I do with my students is see where they are coming from musically in terms of interest. If you're interested in music, I take it from there. You don't necessarily have to be or want to be a jazz musician for me to help develop and cultivate your talent."
Whitaker will continue to juggle recording and teaching duties in 2013. He'll be in the studio this summer for a session that will feature him with two different bands. One includes Wynton and Branford Marsalis, the other Roy Hargrove and alto saxophonist Antonio Hart. He's also working on a film score.
"I'm one of these guys who has to be inspired to write," Whitaker says. "But when the time comes I'll be ready to go. I don't ever want to be playing when I'm not inspired. I love the music too much not to give it 100 percent whenever I'm up there on that bandstand."
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