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Wednesday, February 9,2011

'Up South' stories

Rodney Whitaker premieres jazz suite at Creole Gallery

by Lawrence Cosentino

 


 


Music gets under, on top of, and into the cracks of a story the way words can’t.


“Up South,” an hour-long suite by the Professors of Jazz that premieres Saturday at the Creole Gallery is the opposite of a dry Black History Month lesson.


Crafting a five-part mosaic of the great emigration of Southern blacks to the industrial cities of the north, composer/bassist Rodney Whitaker had to dive into cross-currents of racism, hope, self-destruction and forbidden love.


“To me, music is about drama and a story,” Whitaker said.


“Otherwise, what’s the point of writing it?” “Up South” is a personal project for Whitaker. His mother is from Jacksonville, Fla., and grew up in Albany, Ga., while his father is from Leesburg, Ga.


“They moved ‘up South’ to Detroit,” Whitaker said.


The title phrase alone packs the dislocation, irony and mixed emotions of the great emigration into two words.


“In a city like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis or Chicago, most of the people that end up in your neighborhood are from down South — so we call those cities ‘up South,’” Whitaker explained.


To begin the suite, Whitaker evokes the story of a cousin who never should have left Albany, Georgia.


“He was a church boy,” Whitaker said. “When he moved to Detroit, he became the opposite of his upbringing. He sold drugs, became a pimp. The urban experience blew his mind.”


The suite comes out swinging with a hard-driving rhythm called The Big Four, a sound that defined jazz in its earliest years and is well suited to the swagger of high life in the big city.


“The Big Four,” Whitaker’s title for the tune, has a darker meaning as well.


One afternoon, four policemen dragged Whitaker’s cousin to a Detroit park.


“They beat him down, cleaned him up, put him on a Greyhound bus back to Georgia, and told him to never come back.”


Whitaker,
who grew up in Detroit, recalled seeing the all-white “Big Four” squad
as a child, when most cops were white and the city’s population was
mostly black.


“It was like the police force in South Africa,” he said. “They’d pick people up and you’d never see them again.”


In Whitaker’s treatment, the story takes on subtle and surprising shadings.


“If you know him, it’s kind of funny,” Whitaker said. “It was unfortunate, but it changed his life for the better.”


Whitaker
wanted to express the contradictory emotions and wrenching life changes
of the great emigration while keeping the music focused, and his
cousin’s story was the perfect hook.


“The
trumpet melody is very rhythmic, but the underpinning is the tenor sax
playing a melody that’s almost like your father telling you something,”
he said.


It’s no
wonder Whitaker savored the chance to put “Up South” together. The whirl
of teaching, performing and being the head of Michigan State University
Jazz Studies leaves him precious little opportunity to write music.


“Up
South” is the second in a series of original works by four of the MSU
Professors of Jazz, stretching through October 2012. The series was
commissioned by Whitaker and the Lansing school district and funded by
the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. The professors
are previewing each entry in at Pattengill Middle School, taking
questions from students.


Between rare opportunities like the current Creole series, Whitaker flexes his storytelling skills on film work.


“There has to be some thought or idea before I can write,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who can just sit down and write music.”


In
MSU filmmaker Jeff Wray’s “China,” shown on PBS in 2003, Whitaker’s
music helped reveal the inner life of a burnt-out mailman who takes up
martial arts and has a spiritual awakening.


This
month, Whitaker finished scoring a documentary by Emmy Award-winning
filmmakers Sue Carter and Donald Gould, “Malawi & Malaria.” After
seeing the film about children stricken by the deadly disease, one
combination of sound and image stuck in his mind.


“The thing that kept resonating in my head was a mother’s cry,” he said. “So that’s what I wrote.”


“Up South” is centered on jazz, but it may also be the most ambitious showcase yet for Whitaker’s lyrical, humanistic style.


After
the bruising drama of “The Big Four,” the second part of “Up South”
takes on the bittersweet theme of forbidden love. Whitaker was inspired
by the story of a friend, a white Southerner, who fell in love with an
African-American woman. They never married because of family and social
expectations. The lovelorn man eventually moved north, but never got
over his passion.


“He
was so in love with the sister that he named his first child after
her,” Whitaker said. “So the music is full of angst and longing.”


The
suite’s third movement, “The Teacher,” is a puzzle of a piece,
bristling with intricate bebop lines. It’s dedicated to Barry Harris,
the great Detroit pianist and mentor, but Whitaker said it’s meant to
pay homage to the “Barry Harrises” of northern cities like Pittsburgh,
Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and other destinations of
African-American migration.


“Every town had a mentor that taught all the kids,” Whitaker said. “Most of these guys were from the South.”


The tune has three melodies – trumpet, tenor, and alto sax — moving together in counterpoint.


“I don’t usually hear music that way, but it felt right for this piece,” he said.


The
suite’s fourth part, “Langman,” is dedicated to writer Langston Hughes,
who was born in Joplin, Mo., and to Whitaker’s son, Langston, whom he
named after Hughes.


“It’s
a high-energy waltz, based on contrary motion,” Whitaker said. “The
melody sounds like a spiritual, but you have two melodies that go
against each other.”


The last movement will bring the “Up South” theme home to the Creole audience.


“Robert’s
Lament,” premiered at the 2008 Old Town JazzFest, is dedicated to
another Southern transplant, Creole Gallery founder and Old Town pioneer
Robert Busby.


Busby was born in Lansing, but he spent much of his youth in Martin, Tenn., before returning to his native city.


Whitaker
is pleased that his tribute to Busby will warm the walls of the Creole.
He’s also grateful to booking agent Meegan Holland for hosting the
series.


“Working
with Meegan has been incredible,” Whitaker said. “I told her my idea,
and she said, ‘I’m ready, let’s do it.’ It’s nice to have a partner that
will provide the space, promote it and make it happen.”


Michigan State University Professors of Jazz present Rodney Whitaker’s ‘Up South’


8
p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12 Creole Gallery 1218 Turner St., Lansing $25
Tickets available at Elderly Instruments, Archives Book Shop, or at www.stpconcerts.com


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