Rodney Whitaker, bassist and educator, discusses his relationship to Detroit music, the legacy of the Blue Bird Inn, and the impact of COVID-19.
Carleton Gholz 00:00 Sonic Solidarity is sponsored in part for the Michigan Council for the Arts and Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, our patrons at Patreon.com and listeners like you. Learn more about Detroit Sound Conservancy, browse hundreds of artifacts, oral histories, photographs, and recordings, and join our mailing list at DetroitSound.org.
Gholz 00:29 Welcome to Sonic Solidarity. Uh, my name is Carleton Gholz, executive director of Detroit Sound Conservancy. This is a recent podcast that we’ve begun since the COVID crisis emerged earlier this spring. I’m on the phone with Professor Rodney Whitaker. Musician, uh, who we have met in our, uh, work and progress towards, uh, revitalizing and restoring the Blue Bird Inn on Detroit’s West Side, uh, Professor Whitaker. How are you?
Whitaker 01:05 It’s great to be here. I’m doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.
Gholz Absolutely. Professor. Uh, is it, do you mind if I call you professor?
You can call me Rodney, please!
Gholz I’ll I’ll I’ll go for Rodney. Rodney briefly for our audience. Who are you and how do you describe yourself and what you do and what is your relationship to, uh, Detroit music?
Whitaker Well, I’m, I’m I’m of course I’m, Rodney Whitaker, I’m a bassist, a jazz bassist from Detroit, which is what I’m known as internationally before become before being a professor. But also describe myself as a father of seven children, a husband of one wife, and, uh, and that’s that’s who I am. But I also have performed with several notable international musicians. I played four years with Roy Hargrove, two years with Terence Blanchard and I performed for eight years
Whitaker 02:09 with Wynton Marsalis who I am still associated with, uh, Jazz at Lincoln Center and, uh, work in their Education department. And, um, and I play as a sub in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on occasion, a few times a year. And, uh, I’m a professional musician. I still earn quite a bit of my income touring and playing and teaching. And I am a, I would consider myself a professional jazz musician.
Gholz And we were talking about this before the phone call began, how, how, uh, how long has that arc been? What, you know, how many years, uh, as a professional musician, would you say?
Whitaker Well, I’m 52 years old and I started playing professionally about 15 years old. So what would the math be? I’m not good at math.
Gholz 03:02 Yeah. That’s higher math for me too. I’d over, over 35 years is what I’m going to say there.
Whitaker 03:09 Yeah. So I started, I started pretty early and that that’s really, you know, Detroit, Detroit is a town that nurture bass players. And, uh, when you’re a young bass player, people take particular interest in you and they alert you to the legacy of people like Paul Chambers and Ron Carter and Doug Watkins and Cecil McBee, and for me, Marion Hayden and Ralph Armstrong and Robert Hurst. So for me, um, I felt an obligation and a responsibility to be a part of that legacy. And that was branded on me by the community.
Gholz 03:47 Where in Detroit or, or your experience Detroit, were you a native Detroiter or were you born in the city?
Whitaker 03:55 Yeah, I grew up I’m the, um, I’m actually, uh, uh, son of Southern immigrants or migrant. I’m not sure what the term is.
Whitaker Like my parents migrated from the South from Albany, Georgia, and they had, uh, eight kids. I’m the baby of eight kids. And I’m the, actually the only kid in the family that was born in Detroit, everyone else was born in Georgia. And my parents moved up in the 60s. Uh, to get to work in the auto industry. My father worked at Chrysler and I grew up on the East Side of Detroit, went to Martin Luther King High School, Remus Robinson Middle School and Keating and Stark Elementary. So I’m a tried and true Detroiter. I grew up in the midst of it all.
Gholz East side,
Whitaker East Side. BE.
Gholz 04:45 BE. In the sixties. And if you’re, uh, you know, I’m estimating, I mean, if you’re 52 though, your memory of something, like, for instance, the Rebellion might, you were just a kid at that point. You were . . .
Whitaker 05:00 Yeah, I was born six weeks, almost exactly six weeks after Martin Luther King’s death. Six weeks before Martin Luther King’s death.
Gholz So, early 1968.
Whitaker Yeah. I was born on February 22nd, ‘68, and he was killed April 4th, 1968.
Gholz 05:21 So when you think about, Oh, go ahead.
Whitaker No, no, please.
Gholz Well, I just, I I’ve been thinking a lot about that generation. Uh, our former board president and cofounder LaVelle Williams, uh, passed away in late 2018 and he was a local musician and he had just turned 51 at that time. He would be 53 now. Uh, and I think a lot about that generation that, uh, really grew up after the Rebellion. Post-60s don’t really have direct memories of the 60s really grew up in,
Gholz 05:59 You know, came of age during the time of Coleman. Right.
Gholz Of Mayor Young,
Whitaker Coleman young was in there almost my whole, my whole life pretty much.
Gholz What, what are, what are some of your musical memories of, of the seventies in Detroit? That would have been the time you would have come online, uh, in terms of, uh, adding memories right. Of, of, of things. So what were some of those musical memories while growing up in Detroit?
Whitaker Well, growing up in Detroit, the first thing that you’re sort of aware of you become immediately aware of as a young aspiring musician is really the Motown legacy. Because at, at that time, I thought, before I traveled the world, I started traveling in the mid-80s as a teenager. I didn’t realize how profound Motown was. But as a kid growing up in Detroit, you are aware that, you know, you see constantly, you see late at night the Motown Revue performances on television, and you are made aware early, also in the schools, through your music teachers and every one of that legacy.
Whitaker 07:09 And that all those people are from Detroit. And you’re particularly proud. And then as I started to travel around the world, a few camps and other things, and touring Europe, I realized that those folks were world famous and not even hiding my pride as a Detroit musician. But also there’s a strong legacy of jazz in the schools because we had people like Marcus Belgrave and Herbie Williams and Teddy Harris, Jr. and Donald Walden and Kenny Cox and all those people would go to different organizations and perform in school systems.
So you’re aware of that, you become aware of very early of the Detroit jazz legacy as well. And that’s a profound part of, you know, your psyche and your thoughts about it. But also we used to, the Detroit Symphony did a great job of doing outreach in the school. We had a lady named Arlene McFarland who was the director of music, who I knew very well as a kid. And Ms. McFarland had a partnership with the Detroit Symphony.
Whitaker 08:17 And we would go once a year, as a young aspiring musician, to see the symphony. And so it had a profound effect on your, on your mind and how you thought about the world and how you thought about music. And it was, it was beautiful. And I remember Joseph Striplin being the only African American member of the DSO. And that had like, that make, gave me a sense that maybe one day I could be a symphony musician and study. And, um, and music was everywhere. I mean, I remember as a kid singing vocal music in elementary school and going all the way K-12 studying music. And my real education, and most of the things that I learned that prepared me for a career ,was what I learned in high school. I had a conservatory education at Martin Luther King High School. And that, and the other thing I would add, I had a great music teacher named Ed Quick and Jerome Staffson, who were the orchestra teacher and band teacher at my high school.
Whitaker 09:20 They taught me how to read scores and music theory. And I had an Artist in Residence, Michigan Council for the Arts sponsored at all the major high schools, a Jazz Artists in Residence. And that’s where the jazz bug bit me in high school. And that was Herbie Williams, who was my mentor, lifelong mentor and teacher. And one last other thing.
I started, I really started playing jazz from, uh, Hosea Taylor, who was a band teacher at Remus Robinson, and then also, uh, with Donald Washington with the group called Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. I grew up with James Carter, we played together as kids and my wife Cookie was in the group as well. But, um, so Detroit, I, I, it put my experience of being a young Detroit musician really prepared me for the world
Gholz Bird-Trane-Sco. I’ve seen some of the pictures of, uh, that crew, uh, online, uh, and there is a recording running around. There are some recordings
Whitaker 10:21 THere’s a recording, I actually had left the group. I think the recording was made in 1985 and I left the group, uh, just before they made to recording. At that point, I was so busy playing gigs with Kenny Cox and Marcus Belgrave and Donald Walden and all those folks, I was 17 when they made the recording. Right.
Gholz So why, uh, uh, Rodney why the bass?
Whitaker I was originally, my first instrument, I played trumpet for one day. And it made my cheeks and my, you know, lymph nodes hurt so bad trying to blow the trumpet. I lasted one day. And I wanted to, I really wanted to play trumpet because sort of my first musical hero as a kid was Louis Armstrong. And I remember seeing Louis Armstrong on TV as a kid and how much joy, how happy I would, I didn’t, you know, I didn’t know much about jazz, but I knew Louis Armstrong.
Whitaker 11:24 We began to call him Louis now, but when we were a kid and it was Louis Armstrong and he would be on television all the time. I remember seeing him from maybe like 2, I remember images of seeing him on TV. And my mother said I would gravitate. I would get excited from seeing him on TV. And, um, so I wanted to play the trumpet because I knew Louis Armstrong played trumpet. But it made my jaws hurt. So I went to the, to the music teacher the next day and said, my music teacher’s name was Clarence Sherman. Clarence Shurrel. Sharelle. I think Clarence Shurrell, who I found out later was the principal bass and the Windsor Symphony. And I went to him and I said, uh, “well, you know, I don’t have enough wind to play the trumpet.” So then he put me in the violin class. So my real first instrument was the violin. And that was at age seven. And I got really serious about the violin. And I played that til 13. And then my teacher, um, in middle school made me switch to bass. And he said, uh, one day I would make some money playing the bass and I would travel around the world. And I liked the way that sounds, so I switched to bass.
Gholz 12:40 I think that’s, uh, I think what you’re, what you’re helping us think about is just, and this is something as music lovers from Detroit, we know, we know intuitively the importance of the bass. I think interviewing you and Marion early on in our interview series, I think has just reminded us, the Detroit Sound Conservancy, of about how important the legacy of the bass is. The Blue Bird, obviously it was a place where James Jamerson went to Northwestern High School. So he grew up, you know, it was right nearby. Paul Chambers, Barbara Cox, Kenn Cox’s wife, and, uh, cofounder of the Society of the Culturally Concerned, remembers vividly, uh, Paul Chambers, uh, playing on that Blue Bird stage that we salvaged, with his back foot on the steps and, you know, falling off the stage because it was so small. And, uh, so I think there’s a deep, deep legacy there that, uh, we would be remiss if we didn’t foreground, you know, the bass as a crucial, a crucial piece of, of music making in the city now going back, you know, 60, 70, 80 years now, uh, if not more.
Whitaker 14:00 Well, part of it, part of it is that there is, um, a rich heritage of string playing. And there’s really three cities in the United States where the best bass players come from because of the string training. It’s really Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago. And if you look at most of the bass players who are the top bass players in the world, are from one of those three cities. Consistently. And that’s going all the way back to probably the 1920s.
Whitaker It’s really, and part of the reason why a lot of us ended up playing bass, if you really track and talk to bass players, most people start off on violin or cello. And what happens is, um, the teachers think that you’re serious and that you have musical ability and that you can probably have a career, and they don’t see any possibility of you having a career as a violinist.
Whitaker 14:59 Because at that time, again, when I was a kid, there was one Detroit Symphony member that was African American. That was Joseph Striplin. Who was a product of Cass Tech and Detroit Public Schools. But again, there’s one, one symphony player out of, out of probably, you know, 40, 50 string players that’s African American, and just one violinist. And so people, I think a lot of us have a similar story. I mean, same thing with Charles Mingus. He was a cellist. And wanted to be a classical cellist and his friend Buddy Collette urged hm to learn how to play bass. So he could play jazz and have a career as a musician.
Gholz 15:40 Do you have regrets about that? I mean, as we’re just talking about it, I mean, I don’t want to make, uh, we don’t obviously don’t, obviously it’s an issue of social justice, in a perfect world, right. Your talent and your interest and your work ethic and your passion would be the only cards you would need right, for a career. So do you have regrets about not being, uh, something specific or, yeah, anything you want to say about that? .
Whitaker 16:12 No I play violin, it’s just, play violin still, it’s a bass violin.
Whitaker I have no regret. I played with everybody I wanted to play with. I’ve been to Europe over 200 times, Japan, a hundred times. I played on 200 recordings, so no, no regrets. I’ve had a blessed life. I’ve done everything. I’m a University Distinguished Professor. I’ve done everything that I want to do. But the thing is, I would like there to be a world where people could be what they want to be, if they’re willing to work hard and not base, not have to make decisions based on what opportunities or how limited opportunities are, if that makes any sense.
Gholz 16:59 Absolutely it does. Absolutely it does. Let’s let’s, let’s segue here. Talk a little bit about, just briefly, the impact of the current crisis we talked about earlier, you said you were healthy. We obviously send our health and our, uh, you know, safety to you and your family. In terms of your career and the projects you were working on in 2020, how has COVID-19 and the government’s, let’s, let’s try to be charitable, the government’s reaction, uh, uh, how has it impacted, uh, uh, your work and career this year?
Whitaker 17:33 Well, you know, and I’ve, I’ve, I’ve had a busy, busy, very busy year as a musician, touring and playing, up until March. And I had actually just returned from California a week before this all, I was out recording, doing a recording and a little bit of touring in California, right before the pandemic started. And, um, right before we really went into quarantine, but things were already beginning. Cause I was traveling and people were afraid and staying in hotels and, and a lot of people, I encountered a lot of sick people and I’m not sure whether they had the virus or not, but certainly people, a lot of people had the flu really starting, um, when I, I started touring last summer, I went to Australia in August and back to Australia again in September and to Europe twice, to Paris 10 days, I did a lot of international travel and just encountered like a lot of really sick people from, from starting about November
Whitaker 18:38 I started to see a lot of people that were ill around the world. And there was a flu epidemic going on globally. And so really worried and really paying attention to my health and trying to eat right and do all that sort of stuff. But, uh, a lot of, most of my performances, all of my performances from which I had quite a few with my own sextet, but also, um, as a side person playing with other people and making recordings, doing things like that, all got canceled all the way til July. So I was booked all the way from, from March all the way til pretty much August. So I had like a year of dates that got interrupted. And then right at the time, this all started to go was when I was in the phase to plan for the next year.
Whitaker 19:30 Cause you usually start booking six months out
Whitaker for the next year. And so a lot of those plans are altered too. So people stopped calling, just because they they’re trying to make up for things that they had to cancel or postpone most people postpone. So I had a lot of things out and whenever things start back, I’ll have some bookings that I already, contracts that are already signed, that will, that will happen. But fortunately for me, I have a day job. I’m a university professor.
Whitaker And that provides me, so I’m still teaching and still doing administrative work. I’m the Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State. So I’m still doing that part of my job. But it’s, it’s a, a lot of my friends are devastated economically, um, and are struggling. And, um, and, and fortunately for New York musicians, they have a leader, like Wynton Marsalis, who is the chair of the Louis Armstrong Foundation and gave a million dollars away to the jazz community. They have means. I haven’t seen that kind of advocacy yet in Metro Detroit.
Whitaker 20:39 And I’ve been calling folks asking people if anything is being done, but I’d like to see that, but you know, I’m financially, you know I don’t want to use the word secure, but I’m, I’m okay. You know, my bills are paid and I have the, I’m good at saving money. So I’ll be able to pay my bills for months to come. And I still have a job, but, um, everybody’s worried, nobody knows what the future and you know, it would, it would be nice, you know, not to be hard on anyone, but really I think what we need is leadership. And we need someone giving us clear truth every evening on the six o’clock news.
Whitaker And I think that’s the thing that’s lacking the most is just that it’s uncertain. And we just, we’re not getting, confusion and conspiracy theories and all sorts of crazy sort of stuff. But we just got, we’ll, we’ll get through this. And the sad part for me is that my Mom lives in Detroit in the nursing home, ended up getting the virus and ended up on the ventilator, but she’s back in the nursing home doing well. So it wasn’t her time, thank God.
Gholz 21:54 Sorry to hear about that. We’re glad she’s better, but you know, the ventilator stuff is awful, but that’s hard to go through, a body and a mind to go through that. So we, you know, we send our best to your family there.
Whitaker Thank you.
Gholz Um, in our time left. Uh, there’s so much to talk about. I, I, at some point we should talk again, I’d love to talk more specifically about the band that you led. I mean, you were talking earlier about Lincoln Center. You guys, uh, did well this last year with the band, uh, at Lincoln Center. Um, there’s so many good things that you’re doing and we will link to those on our website so that people can learn more about what you do in your day to day, if you’ve got some links, I know you’ll share them and we can put those in with the piece
Gholz 22:38 so people can know who you are then our time left. I want to just segue back to the Blue Bird.
Gholz The Blue Bird Inn began in the 1930s, uh, it had live music really very early. Uh, it really started off in sort of a blues and “swing” music in quotes, uh, very in the 30s and 40s, but eventually became a bebop, uh, uh, paradise, if you were. A training ground, uh, for many musicians, some who are still with us, people like Barry Harris, um, but to, and then another generation that came on in the fifties and sixties, uh, and, and many people came through there. Live music went away from it for many years when you were, when you were first starting up. My sense is there wasn’t a lot of live music at the Bird at that time, it had sort of gotten away for, with it, uh, at gotten away from it for a while. But in the 1990s, Mary Eddins, uh, uh, tried to put together a little renaissance, uh, uh, with the club and you were brought in, um, to perform. Can you just talk a little bit about
Gholz 23:47 performing at the Blue Bird in the 1990s, how that came about, just anything about that experience, uh, of your time at the Bird.
Whitaker Well what happened, how I began to pull form at the Blue Bird is that I got a call from the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor to do a, um, a performance with Tommy Flanagan, who is course a Detroit native. And one of the stellar pianists of all time. And, uh, Tommy, Tommy Flanagan contacted me and said, do I know a drummer that could do this gig with, uh, with him? And I got the great drummer from Detroit named Gerald Cleaver, who was living in town. And at that time, both of us were teaching at the University of Michigan. And I was also teaching at Michigan State as an adjunct at both places. And, um, this was just after the time I played with Roy Hargrove.
Whitaker 24:40 So it was in the mid-90s. And so we did like a, maybe like a three-city tour in the Midwest with Tommy Flanagan. And then later that spring, Tommy contacted us to say, “Hey, you know, I’m coming back, I’m supposed to play at the Blue Bird. Would you be interested in playing with, you and Gerald interested in playing?” So we played with him for, I think, three nights or so at the Blue Bird, a Thursday, Friday, Saturday night. And it was really successful. And there was a guy named Carl who I can’t remember Carl’s last name who was hanging at the club
Whitaker Carl Hill. That’s right. Call said, said to me, “Hey, you know, um, maybe you ought to take this over and, and do something, you know, be the house band.” So that’s how it started, just from performing with Tommy Flanagan. And, uh, it was an incredible experience and we did it, we did it, you know, maybe I was only there maybe for about six months.
Whitaker 25:37 And, um, it was great because at that time, teaching at the two schools, a lot of the young players from both Michigan State and, um, University of Michigan would come down on the weekend and hang out. And this was a lot of their first experience. People like Randy Napoleon and Sasha <inaudible> and Diego Rivera, all these people went on to become great jazz musicians. They kind of, for six months spent a lot of time at the Blue Bird. And, um, but you know, it was a challenge. It was a challenge to do. It was an incredible experience. And I became really aware of that legacy and that, and a lot of info, I knew a lot about the club because of Kenny Cox and Barbara Cox. They were mentors of mine. And I met them probably when I was 15, when I met both of them through the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now.
Whitaker 26:31 Now, Kenny son, Philip, he played drums in the group Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. So that’s how I met Kenny Cox. And Kenny would come and work with us a lot. And so I, so I knew a lot about that club and loved the legacy and saw photos at their house. They had great photo album of things from about the Blue Bird, but, um, it was, it was an incredible experience, but it became a challenge because a lot of the people who, who grew up there and supported the bar who would come there and drink, even when there wasn’t music, didn’t want to pay to hear music. And at that time they, you know, they didn’t have a lot of money. So at one point I was really kind of supporting it financially and depending on, depending on the money from the door to pay the musicians, and that became like problematic and a challenge.
Whitaker 27:25 So I ended up, um, becoming, uh, doing the same thing at Bert’s Place, which was a lot easier because people were used to paying to get into clubs. So that was, but it was, for me it was great because my wife grew up in that neighborhood. The first house I bought was in the same neighborhood. So I lived in that neighborhood for years and years before, at least before they started presenting live jazz again, and always would stop in there. Even when I wasn’t old enough to drink, I’d just walk in and walk in the door and check out, look at the club and check out the ambience. And, um, but that was the, one of the, the neighborhood that I bought a house in, when I first bought a house in Detroit.
Gholz What street Rodney?
Whitaker I lived on, uh, what is the name Oregon
Whitaker Oregon between, uh, was, I can’t remember the cross streets there, but Oregon, between Colfax and, what is it? Colfax and Colfax . . . in fact, my mother-in-law lived, lived across the street from me.
Whitaker 28:32 So my wife grew up, my wife went to Northwestern High School.
Gholz There you go.
Whitaker Webber middle school, which is right across from the club.
Gholz Yep. Right there.
Whitaker That neighborhood is dear to me. And, and I owned a house there up until about 2005.
Tell me one thing about the Blue Bird. You’ve obviously played many, many clubs around the world. I recently had the opportunity to go to Dizzy’s Club as part of Lincoln center. Their small, their smaller venue there, you know, which is sort of comparably the size of the Blue Bird though very differently shaped and very different sort of atmosphere and different acoustics, et cetera. But where does the Blue Bird in terms of just its space, being on that stage, you’ve been on that bandstand. It’s a fairly unique, uh, bandstand, but you’ve been around the world. Tell us, uh, yeah, give it a little compare with some of the places you have played.
Whitaker 29:25 You know, the, the thing about the Blue Bird, you know, I played jazz clubs all over the world and I’ve never played a place . . . the two best place, jazz clubs with the best acoustics in the world are both in Detroit and the two best places with the best acoustics, number one would be the Blue Bird. I’ve never played in a place that’s sonically perfect for jazz. And the irony of it is the stage is too small. But I think if you had a different stage, it would change the sound. And so that stage projected the sound a certain way, and you really don’t need any amplification in that club. You could play a cassette without miking, anything, and there’s hardly any other club in the world that you could do that. Even Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, all those places that were designed by acousticians don’t match the sound of the Blue Bird. And the second best club in the world with the best acoustics is Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. And they’re both in Detroit, Michigan. It’s something, I don’t know what science went into it or whether it was just an accident, but it, it had, I think, uh, that it should be refurbished just so that acousticians and engineers can come and, and, uh, and study the acoustics of that room.
Whitaker 30:48 Cause it’s perfect. There’s not a bad seat in the place. I sat there many nights when I was the music director there for that six months. And, uh, and I sat in different places at the bar and the different seats in the place. And you could hear perfectly everywhere in the club.
Gholz And where you microphoned at that time?
Whitaker I was using, I was using a mic only, no amplifier, but just, just the mic and the, the little, they had a little system in there. But I played in there with Tommy Flanagan with no amplification. So it was just acoustic, piano and drums and bass. And you could hear it perfect.
Gholz 31:27 Mr. Whitaker, uh, professor, I really appreciate you talking to me today. I think this is, you know, you and I have been talking briefly about, you know, last year or two, but I think with what you’ve said today, I think, you know, we’re hopefully going to have some success hopefully with some grants for the Blue Bird. You know, we really believe in the project and, um, we’re just very happy to be in touch with you. Uh, as a, as a, as someone who has ear witnessed, an ear witness to that room and that experience, and is also still a practicing musician, you know what you’re talking about and you understand what it means right now. It’s very, it’s very powerful for us. So, appreciate you. Uh, anything last you want to stay here?
Whitaker Well, I appreciate the work that you’re doing and anything I could do to support it. Let me know I’ll be there.
Gholz Rodney Whitaker everybody. Uh, this has been Sonic Solidarity with Detroit Sound Conservancy.
Gholz 32:29 Day’s episode of Sonic solidarity was recorded and produced by myself. Carleton Gholz it was edited and engineered by Detroit Sound Conservancy his project manager, Jonah. [cut off]
Today’s episode of Sonic Solidarity was recorded and produced by myself, Carleton Gholz. It was edited engineered by Detroit Sound Conservancy project manager, Jonah Raduns-Silverstein. Our theme music was performed by bassist Marion Hayden and saxophonist DeSean Jones in front of the legendary Blue Bird Inn, Detroit, Michigan, 2019.