Masters of excellence

Two leading jazz artists mentor MSU students through week-long residencies.

MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Mark Whitfield, guitar, performed with Jazz Studies octets and faculty like Assistant Professor of Jazz Guitar Randy Napoleon (left) while touring for a week to high schools around Michigan.
Saxophonist Melissa Aldana was the MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence in October, the first of four this academic year. 2018-19 is the sixth year of the program started through an endowment created by the credit union.
Renowned guitarist Mark Whitfield works with MSU Jazz Studies students prior to a performance.
Education is the main goal of the MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Program, and Melissa Aldana held a master class in Cook Recital Hall with MSU saxophone students.
Mark Whitfield and Randy Napoleon perform on a Detroit morning television program.

Learning from the masters is fundamental in the pursuit of excellence. The MSU College of Music adheres to that tradition as exemplified by the MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Program, now in its sixth year.

Since 2013, jazz students have had the opportunity to engage, travel and perform with four leading jazz artists a year through the community-focused, educational program supported by the MSU Federal Credit Union. The 2018-19 season is no different, with guest artists bringing a diversity of talent and professional experience to students at MSU and K-12 schools across Michigan.

“Sometimes we think we are at 100 percent, but necessity breeds invention,” said Randy Napoleon, MSU assistant professor of jazz guitar. “At a certain level, you need to play next to master musicians to fill your full potential.”

Shared perspective

Napoleon and his colleagues in the Jazz Studies area put things in motion to bring this year’s dazzling lineup to MSU. Napoleon recently finished hosting New York-based jazz guitarist Mark Whitfield in early December, while Diego Rivera, associate professor of jazz studies, saxophone and improvisation, coordinated the visit of Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana in October.

“As with all our MSUFCU guest artists, we try to bring in musicians who are on the cutting edge of this art form to work with our students,” Rivera said. “With Melissa, her knowledge of the craft paired with her ability to communicate and relate to students makes her a very important ambassador of our music.”

Both Aldana and Whitfield are stand-outs in today’s jazz world, as are the two artists on deck for spring semester: bassist Mimi Jones and trombonist Steve Davis. Collectively, the four musicians occupy different spheres of jazz and are adept at passing along insights on performance, style, and the business of jazz itself.

Napoleon wanted to bring Whitfield to MSU and the greater community to give students a taste of what the musical level is like in New York City. Whitfield, he said, is the epitome of the modern, flexible jazz artist who records and performs with musicians spanning generations and genres. And while Whitfield’s sophisticated, soulful approach contrasts with the pioneering style and depth of Aldana, both artists hold fast to jazz traditions, including mentoring aspiring players.

Students in the jazz program agree that having the chance to learn from and tour with Aldana was eye-opening. Some knew about her, others didn’t. But all were excited about the prospect of spending seven days with a prominent woman in jazz.

“She took the time to ask everyone in the band about themselves, to hang out with us, and to schedule jamming time with us outside of performance times,” said bassist Liany Mateo, a junior in jazz studies. “I feel incredibly lucky to be in a program like this that allows for these personal and musical interactions with amazing musicians like her.”

Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker speaks to the crowd at the end of one of the Melissa Aldana performances at Michigan schools, with Aldana (center) and Associate Professor of Jazz Saxophone Diego Rivera.
Mark Whitfield works with graduate Jazz Studies student Nathan Borton.
Classes in Michigan high schools and academies are a main feature of the MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence program. Here, Melissa Aldana works with a group of high school students.
While in Detroit, Mark Whitfield and MSU Jazz Studies faculty and students visited Hitsville, U.S.A., the Motown Records museum.

Jazz studies freshman Rachel Coleman said she looked forward to asking Aldana questions about what it was like to be a woman in jazz living in New York, and about the struggles she might have faced.

“I admired her passion,” said Coleman. “She genuinely wants what’s best for the music and doesn’t bother herself with all the social politics of it all—like comparing herself to other musicians.”

As a member of Jazz Orchestra II, Coleman played alongside Aldana at a concert in MSU Fairchild Theatre. Graduate Assistant and saxophonist Tissa Khosla shared a similar experience at Fairchild. And as a member of Jazz Orchestra I, Khosla also went on the road with Aldana to perform with and mentor K-12 students at four Michigan schools and academies.

“Melissa really made me hear in a new way and to improvise with new types of inflections,” said Khosla. “She said something to the effect of ‘it’s not the note that matters, but the attitude of the person playing it.’ I think what she meant was that the right attitude gets you to the right music. Your music.”

Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker echoed student sentiments, saying that guest artists that visit MSU possess gifts that extend beyond music. Many are innovators, composers, skilled educators, producers and entrepreneurs. All have the ability to put others at ease—be it faculty, MSU students, or the young aspiring musicians they meet in the K-12 schools and academies they visit state-wide.

“The artists we bring here to MSU reinforce the idea that with hard work, determination and devotion to the music that a career in jazz is possible for everyone,” Whitaker said. “They simply love jazz and the life of a musician. And they love passing on what they’ve learned through the long-standing jazz tradition of one generation mentoring the next.”

Humble collaboration

With more than 30 years in the business, Mark Whitfield showed that the ability to collaborate and put others at ease is key to any career. Over his seven-day residency, the renowned guitarist mentored MSU Jazz Studies students and toured K-12 schools and academies in Kalamazoo, Warren, Detroit and Grand Rapids with members of Jazz Orchestra I.

“Along with his world-class musicianship, I believe Mark has stayed at the top of our profession because of his professionalism on and off the bandstand,” said Napoleon. “He is simply the kind of person you want to work with.”

Jazz studies senior and guitarist Peter Martin remarked that Whitfield is the type of musician he aspires to be. Whitfield, he said, wasn’t focused on himself, but rather on the kind of value he could bring to the music and on the knowledge he could impart to others.

“I think a big part of being a professional musician and being part of the jazz community is wanting to see the community grow,” said Martin. “Mark Whitfield was positive and encouraging and gave us individual attention. By being around him for a week, you really got to see how to be the person and artist you want to be.”

Guitarist Hans Hansen, a junior in jazz studies and music education, said that Whitfield was a big reason why he decided to become a jazz musician. He said it was “pretty surreal” to be able to perform with such a distinguished musician—and to see how easy going and encouraging he was to everyone around him.

“I think I will always remember him saying that he imagines what the music would sound like without him,” said Hansen. “That’s a very humble way to approach deciding what to play at any given moment.”

Watch MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence Mark Whitfield perform with MSU Assistant Professor of Jazz
Guitar Randy Napoleon on the Fox 2 Detroit morning program "The Nine" in December 2018.

The MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence program attracts high-level talent and serves as a model for jazz studies programs nationwide. 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 22 artists to-date have reached over 30,000 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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