Diversifying jazz mentorship

Leading musicians cap off dynamic lineup for MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence program.

MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Steve Davis (left) playing at WZZM in Grand Rapids with student Luther Allison and Associate Professor of Jazz Trombone Michael Dease.
During her week on campus and touring with MSU jazz students, MSUFCU Jazz Artist In Residence Mimi Jones conducted a bass workshop in Demonstration Hall.
Steve Davis sat at a piano to demonstrate some harmony to Jazz Orchestra I members after their show at Spring Lake High School.
The students who interacted with Mimi Jones said she was authentic, sincere, and had fun, as seen here when she got excited to see the poster promoting her residency at MSU.

Rodney Whitaker explains what made the latest year of the MSU Federal Credit Union Jazz Artist in Residence program so special.

“Our lineup was one of the most diverse ever,” said the MSU director of jazz studies. “And all our artists shared a common thread: the desire to pass along the beauty of jazz through the long-standing tradition of mentoring.”

Whitaker and his colleagues in the MSU Jazz Studies area kicked off the 2018-19 series of one-week residencies with Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana in October. New York-based jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield followed in early December.

In spring semester, two more jazz stand-outs visited. Bassist Mimi Jones and trombonist Steve Davis both showed their commitment to mentoring by sharing insights on performance, style, and the business side of jazz. And while their perspectives were similar, each related different personal experiences shaped by age and gender.

Relatable experience

Mimi Jones was an exceptional choice to bring to East Lansing, Whitaker said, with her multi-dimensional talents as a bassist, vocalist, filmmaker and producer. The mid-career artist also has experience working, studying and touring with top names in jazz. And like Aldana, Jones shed light on the experience of being a woman in jazz.

“Over the past few years, numerous young artists have shown our students that it is possible to have a career as a professional musician,” Whitaker said. “We thought it very important to bring a successful female musician to campus since 20 percent of the students in our jazz program are women.”

Whitaker’s intuition bore out. Jazz students were ecstatic about Jones’ visit. Several called it an experience that dramatically affected the way they approach their instruments and their artistry.

MSUFCU Jazz Artist In Residence Mimi Jones with University Distinguished Professor Rodney Whitaker and MSU bass students.
Jazz bassist Mimi Jones worked closely with students from the Detroit School of the Arts as well as MSU.
Among many activities during a week long residency, jazz artists like Steve Davis conduct workshops for the Jazz Area at MSU.
MSU student trombonist Chris Glassman (right) wrote an arrangement of Steve Davis' composition "Groves Groove" which was then performed at the end of the week at the concert in Fairchild Theatre.

“She is wise and was willing to give advice and also just talk about life,” said bassist Liany Mateo, a third-year Jazz Studies undergraduate. “She left me with a feeling I will take with me everywhere.”

Mateo valued the opportunity to study with a high-caliber, versatile musician and to hear what life was like for a working artist. She also appreciated Jones’ authentic, sincere style when relating to others.

“To see her thriving in music was very profound to me,” Mateo said. “She lives where she wants, and takes many musical opportunities that others strive for. She is an amazing example of being a musician who also happens to be a woman.”

Jazz Studies and Composition senior Jordyn Davis echoed the sentiments of her fellow bassist. As a member of the MSU Jazz Octets, Davis toured with Jones to a handful of K-12 schools and academies to perform and talk with young musicians. She said the bus rides across Michigan gave her additional face time with Jones, and the chance to talk about being a woman of color in jazz.

“I’ve never had any musical mentors who were women,” Davis said. “Having her perspective and wisdom about how to take care of yourself while staying true to your artistic voice was super valuable.”

Creative insights

Early spring generated an equal excitement when a well-known jazz trombonist swung into town to tour and work with Jazz Studies students.

Steve Davis was the fourth of the four jazz artists to mentor students through the JAR program this year. Widely considered a leading improvisor on the trombone, Davis’ lyrical, hard-swinging style gained him broad recognition during the 1990s while working with jazz legends.

Associate Professor of Trombone Michael Dease said he had been a fan of Davis since high school. Dease recalled he met Davis by chance in a New York City music store while he was a student at Juilliard; they later became trombone section mates in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band and the Christian McBride Big Band.

“Steve is compassionate, empathetic and creates relationships built on sincerity and trust—all pillars of mentorship,” Dease said. “I was thrilled for our students to receive that type of support.”

Like Dease, second year Master’s in Jazz Studies student and bass trombonist Chris Glassman said he has been a huge fan of Davis since first becoming interested in playing jazz. And just like the reactions to Mimi Jones’ visit, Glassman said one of the greatest parts of the residency program is being able to spend time with the guest artist on the bus where he and other band members got to ask a lot of questions while en route. He vividly recalls Davis’ personal stories about working with jazz legends like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea and Jackie McLean – one of Davis’ mentors.

Among the concerts MSUFCU Jazz Artists in Residence perform during their residency, many are at high schools. Here, Mimi Jones performs with Jazz Octet I at Midland High School.
MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Steve Davis plays on "Live in the D" with Associate Professor Michael Dease and students Michael Reed, Javier Enrique, and Carter Graham.
Bassist Mimi Jones (right) performed with Jazz Octet I at the MSU Community Music School - Detroit. Student Markus Howell is soloing.
Spending time performing with, talking to, and learning from artists like Steve Davis can be a life-changing experience for MSU Jazz Studies students.

“Being part of the MSU Jazz Studies department and programs like these are unforgettable and life-changing experiences,” Glassman said. “Imagine being a software developer for a startup tech company and getting to hang out with Bill Gates for a week. Or being an aspiring Olympic sprinter and getting to work and train with Usain Bolt. You’ll get a sense of what this program and guest artist tour is like for us.”

Jazz Studies senior Alex Larionov said being mentored by Davis made him feel like he was part of the lineage of jazz—particularly when he heard how Davis had been mentored by jazz great McLean.

“Being mentored by one of my biggest heroes has been one of my best experiences here at MSU,” Larionov said. “It made me realize how Professor Whitaker has created that culture of close mentorship between students and some of today’s leading jazz artists—including our faculty here at MSU.”

Since 2013, jazz students have worked alongside four leading jazz artists a year through the Jazz Artist in Residence program, a community-focused, educational program made possible through the support of the MSU Federal Credit Union. Each year the lineup of visiting artists enable students at MSU and K-12 schools across Michigan to learn from established jazz musicians as well as those rising in prominence.

“It reminds me that we study with the best,” Larionov said, “and it makes me extremely grateful to be part of this program.”

The MSU Federal Credit Union Jazz Artist in Residence program has served as a model for jazz studies programs nationwide since 2013. Inspiring lineups provide students and communities a rare opportunity to listen to and learn from high-energy, well-known musicians and virtuosos who are equally accomplished as educators, composers and arrangers shaping the world of jazz.

All combined, the residencies of 24 artists to-date have reached nearly 32,000 students and adults across Michigan through workshops, performances and one-on-one instruction at non-profit organizations and at middle and high schools.

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