Jazz bassist Rodney Whitaker keeps busy with upcoming gigs at Cliff Bell | Local music | Detroit
A phone interview is scheduled with Rodney Whitaker, the Detroit native hailed as one of the greatest jazz double bass players on the planet, for a Saturday morning.
I don’t want to call too soon. The musician’s hours, you know.
“I’ve been up for eight hours!” Whitaker counters from his mid-Michigan home. “I was in Florida for a few days teaching masterclasses, so I got up this morning, wrote for the method book I’m working on, and then practiced for a few hours.”
It’s important to maximize your time when you’re a performing, touring and recording artist who’s played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Dizzy Gillespie and also happens to be Jazz Bass Teacher Emeritus and Director of studied jazz at Michigan State University. College of Music.
“It’s a challenge,” he admits. “I have a regular weekly schedule and only a certain number of weeks per semester I can go and do other work. But it would be the same if I was a doctor, a lawyer or any other profession. I am a musician before everything, and you have to put in the time and work hard in everything you do.
Whitaker’s roadworks bring him home this month for a two-night, three-show concert at legendary Detroit jazz club Cliff Bell’s on Wednesdays and Thursdays in support of his new release. Oasis: the music of Gregg Hillout this month on Origin Records.
Oasis is Whitaker’s third album in collaboration with Hill, the Lansing-based composer who has released 145 original jazz compositions. “We recorded the first (Middle ground) pre-pandemic, and the second (Introspection) during the pandemic,” says Whitaker.
“Gregg is a great friend of mine, lives here in the community of Lansing, and he’s a very philanthropic person who supports a lot of artists here. But he’s also a beautiful human being, just a kind, gentle person, and we talk about music all the time. He had so many tracks he wanted to release, and as he started recording his music, I said, “Hey, I want to be in some of these collaborations!”
It is also Whitaker’s fifth release on Seattle-based Origin Records. His long association with Detroit’s Mack Avenue Music Group ended in 2014.
“It’s a great cooperative label,” he says of Origin. “You own your product and they do all the distribution and promotion. I had done projects with all the artists who record for their label, and when I approached them with my Ellington record (2019’s Too Soon: The Music of Duke Ellington) they were pretty excited. All the records I’ve done for them have done really well in terms of sales, publicity and radio play. And you have to own your product these days. It is as it should be. Content is everything.
Whitaker says he’s been trying to perform at Cliff Bell’s at least twice a year for the past few years since a former student of his, Noah Jackson, was named curator and creative director there. “I just want to support what he’s doing,” he says.
“But I always tell people, there’s no audience like a Detroit audience,” Whitaker says, a note of pride in his voice. “These crowds know whether you can play or not. You can’t come to Detroit without BS. They don’t tolerate it. Detroit has a BS filter. As Stanley Clarke used to say of New Yorkers, “They can smell the brimstone before you strike the match.”
For this record release engagement, Whitaker will be accompanied at Cliff Bell’s, as he was on Oasis, by his daughter, Rockelle Fortin, on vocals. “Rockelle (a musical variation on ‘Raquel,’ a favorite movie actress from her youth) and I have been playing together since she was 18,” Whitaker says, “and she’ll tell you she’s in the end of the day. twenties now.”
Fortin’s distinctive vocal gifts are particularly evident on the haunting, thoughtful vocals Oasis song “Interlude”. “You know, just like you have to learn how to parent, you have to learn how to work with your family,” Whitaker recalled. “Because sometimes they take what you say very personally. So you have to respect them like you respect your other musicians. I like working with her. She has a beautiful voice and is prepared all the time. And she wrote the lyrics to all the tunes. She has become quite the lyricist.
And he became quite the educator, helping to transform MSU’s jazz program into one of the nation’s preeminent programs under his leadership. “We won a national competition last year,” he says, “the graduates are doing well and the program continues to grow. Probably 60% of our students are from out of state, as far away as California, Florida, and the East Coast. Michigan State has invested heavily in our program and we are likely in the Top 10.”
Teaching jazz, as you can imagine, “is very difficult, because you have to think outside the box,” says Whitaker. “You have to work on communication all the time. You cannot assume that the students know what you mean. When I teach, I go over the material even though we talked about it last week. Nobody wants to admit they don’t know.
To help current and future students remember this, Whitaker is preparing his method book, a manual that compiles everything he has learned and taught over the course of his career.
“For the past 20 years, I’ve kept a lesson file, which is a collection of all the things I’ve taught my students about bass,” he explains. “What I’ve started working on is putting it all together in a book that’s going to be out next summer. Ron Carter got a method book. Rufus Reid got a method book. So I just try to follow their example. I think that’s how you leave a legacy.
“One of my mentors always said to me, ‘You have nothing to complain about. You have people paying you money to do your hobby. So everything is fine. »
The Rodney Whitaker Quartet performs album release concerts on behalf of Oasis at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 30 and Thursday, December 1 at Cliff Bell’s, 2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543; cliffbells.com. Doors open at 5 p.m. for dinner. Tickets open at 6:15 p.m. for the first show, 9 p.m. for the second. Tickets are $25.