Written by Bette Downs.
Five gifted musicians, the Professors of Jazz, mesh their remarkable talents to create an exuberant, swinging sound. Eager to spread the powerful message of jazz, they follow a rigorous schedule of performances and teaching.
The Professors of Jazz have earned their title. Bassist Rodney Whitaker directs the burgeoning jazz studies program at Michigan State University and trumpeter Derrick Gardner, saxophonist Diego Rivera, drummer Randy Gelispie, and pianist Rick Roe have joined Whitaker to teach their specialties. Whitaker proudly announces that students in the flourishing jazz studies program can now earn a bachelor of arts degree.
Last April, the Professors of Jazz temporarily left their teaching responsibilities and traveled to Chicago on the fourth annual jazz train organized by Classic Travel and the MSU College of Arts and Letters. Throughout the weekend, the nationally acclaimed musicians offered a stunning array of favorite numbers for some 50 appreciative jazz enthusiasts. On the train, they heard inspired jazz while feasting on chicken salad, bruschetta, gourmet pizza, tortilla pinwheels, and much more.
After settling in at the low key but elegant Sutton Place Hotel, the group boarded their special bus to travel to one of Chicago’s many clubs, the Jazz Showcase, where the show starred the Professors of Jazz. Their friend, the versatile Ira Sullivan, joined them for a generous evening performance.
With no daytime events scheduled for Saturday, the Lansing area travelers dispersed to sample Chicago’s limitless treasures. Serious shopping along pulsating Michigan Avenue and beyond resulted in the purchase of a suit by one member of the group. The hallowed Art Institute of Chicago attracted others who investigated the museum’s current installations. They discovered a unique photography exhibition which focused on nudes, dance, and sculpture.
Despite a blustery day, other members of the group chose a walking tour which featured many of Chicago’s architectural gems. Docent Paul Phillips, a retired psychologist, led the tourists along some of Chicago’s major arteries to discuss the details of early skyscrapers. The tour also included a stop at the Chicago Cultural Center. Completed in 1897, the landmark was built as the City’s central library and the Grand Army of the Republic Museum. At the Center, exquisite mosaics, a massive staircase of carrara marble, and the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome claimed the attention of the tourists while the Randoph Cafe and Comer Bakery provided for rest and refreshment. The Center also houses Chicago’s Visitor Information Center, the Claudia Cassidy Theater, the Museum of Broadcast Communications, and other public facilities.
In Chicago, walking rewards the tourist with special joys. From the hotel, a stroll along shaded Bellevue Place reveals handsome brownstones with tiny but dramatic gardens of tulips and rhododendron. A pause in front of the Chandler Apartments has its own simple gift of information. A plaque lists Buckingham Chandler as the early developer and the building was restored in 1992 by L. R. Development.
Just minutes after leaving this peaceful enclave, a pedestrian can join in the excitement of throbbing Michigan Avenue with its multitude of shops and restaurants. Back at the hotel, the curious can study original Robert Mapplethorpe floral photographs displayed throughout the building.
On Saturday evening, following a festive reception and dinner in an intimate setting, the Bellevue room of the Sutton Place, the Professors of Jazz, once more demonstrating their generous spirit, presented a concert which continued well into the night. After a weekend of jazz en route and jazz on Friday and Saturday evenings, the Professors of Jazz added an educational component to their final concert. At a Sunday brunch at the hotel, they offered their very personal interpretations of the music they obviously love.
Rodney Whitaker, who is a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and has traveled internationally, says that “Traveling around and playing, you see there is a need for people who know the music to be teaching it.” During the Sunday brunch. Randy Gelispie explained some of the intricacies of jazz —“behind the beat, on the beat, and ahead of the beat.”
Rick Roe talked about one of his favorites, “April in Paris”, featured by the group. “I love to play it,” he said.
Diego Rivera spoke of “Body and Soul”, also played by the Professors. He described the varied spiritual and musical qualities of three recordings of the composition.
Journalist Lawrence Cosentino has named Derrick Gardner as a “powerful new voice in MSU’s jazz arsenal.” Gardner’s unique trumpet solos and quiet assurance underscore this evaluation.
Boarding the train for the return to Lansing, the devotees of jazz who attended the fourth annual jazz weekend made clear their desire for a fifth. Meanwhile, at MSU, Whitaker and his colleagues will continue to build the fast growing jazz studies program that has already attained national recognition.