Rodney Whitaker’s Two Jazz Disciplines: Playing And Teaching

Musician-turned-professor talks about learning to teach and jam with his students. [Live Performance]

Rodney Whitaker, Professor of Jazz Bass and Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan State University, joins WDET’s Alex Trajano to talk about how he came to play and teach jazz.

Whitaker grew up on the East Side of Detroit. He says that his neighborhood was filled with southerners who all appreciated and loved music. This meant he heard all kinds of styles of music around, but he was always partial to jazz. It was after a neighbor gave him a couple of jazz records in middle school that he says he decided he wanted to be a jazz musician.

“When I heard jazz, man, my void had been filled,” says Whitaker.

He pressed very hard to become a professor, working as an adjunct at both Michigan State University and University of Michigan at the same time at one point, but he says after he agreed to become Director of Jazz Studies at Michigan he did try to quit when he realized how much work the job would entail. He ended up staying put.

“Ultimately I saw that this was an important mission and it’s really one of the things I always wanted to be,” says Whitaker.

While teaching was something that Whitaker wanted to do, he says teaching in a university setting is not something that came naturally. Initially his students would complain that he would make them late for their next classes, and he says the discipline he needed to condense his classes down is very different than the discipline he used to practice and study music. He does make sure there is some less focused time with his students during his office hours which he says often turn into jam sessions, often to the chagrin of fellow music faculty.

“The reality in jazz to hang is so much part of the tradition,” says Whitaker.