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in his own words…Pharez Whitted
Trumpeter, educator and composer Pharez Whitted was born into a musical family in Indianapolis, Indiana. Among his mentors were his parents and his uncles, Maceo and trombonist Slide Hampton. At the age of nine, Whitted, wishing to be a part of the music around him, pulled out a trumpet from the closet and gained some tips from his brothers, Leo and Tommy.
Whitted’s music resume includes performances at the 1988 Presidential Inauguration, The Arsenio Hall Show, The Billboard Music Awards, Carnegie Hall, and the MoTown Music Showcase. Whitted has performed with such notable jazz giants and popular musicians as Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, George Duke, Kirk Whalum, Elvin Jones, Slide Hampton, John Mellencamp, The Temptations, Roy Meriwether, The O’Jays, Lou Rawls, Ramsey Lewis, and former Tonight Show bassist and classmate, Bob Hurst. Whitted wrote, produced, arranged, and played on his two CDs for MoTown’s Jazz record label, entitled Pharez Whitted and Mysterious Cargo. He also co-produced the MoJazz album, People Make the World Go ‘Round.
Whitted studied music at DePauw University and went on to earn a master’s degree from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He is currently the director of jazz studies at Chicago State University and continues to play locally, regionally, nationally and internationally, often with Bobby Broom, Ron Perrillo, and Eddie Bayard. Whitted is also a regular with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Additionally,Whitted is a United Musical Instruments (UMI) clinician, and a Conn/Selmer clinician, and a Jazz Mentor at Ravinia.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you decide that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Pharez Whitted: I knew I wanted to be involved in music fairly early. It was all around me, it was a part of my life, it had a major impact on the things that I would do. I don’t know if I ever decided, it was just what it was. Music was a part of everything that we did as a family, it had a major impact on my life. so I jumped in it fairly quickly. It was music and church, and that helped shape who I am today. When I was in college, I received my first private lesson.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You went to college for music?
Whitted: Yeah, DePauw University—Bachelor of Arts, Music Performance was my first degree. Then from there I went to Indiana University for a graduate degree in Jazz Studies.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you remember your first paid gig?
Whitted: It was with Jimmy Coe’s Big Band in Indianapolis. Jimmy Coe was a wonderful saxophone player, tenor and alto. He was the alto player who took Charlie Parker’s place in Jay McShann’s band when he left. He had a big band in Indianapolis, and a lot of the musicians played with his band. They let me sit in when I was like, fifteen or sixteen. They let me hang out with them well before I should have been hanging out. The opportunities that they gave me, I don’t know, I really had no business to be there, but they were kind enough to let me sit down and watch and play, and they matriculated me into the system. It was a great experience and they helped me a lot.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Once you had finished college you had the real world facing you. What was going through your mind?
Whitted: I knew I wanted to stay involved in music. While I was in graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant for the I.U. Soul Review Ensemble, which is a performing ensemble of soul music. Ensemble. It gave me the opportunity to work with students and to teach and to be involved with the educational side of music. It was exhilarating and I loved it: different people and different levels of talent. And I decided I wanted to do that early on, as well, and that’s why I went to graduate school. I wanted to perform, but I also wanted to teach. And I had a degree in performance, and you really can’t do a whole lot with a performance degree. Graduate school was next on the list. I didn’t hesitate. It was great because I got to work with David Baker at Indiana University, one of the greatest jazz instructors in the world. There are a lot of schools, and it’s the educators associated with the schools that make the programs. You have to be careful, because some schools aren’t as good as others––that’s the reality of life. You really want to check out who’s there and what you want to do.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you got your graduate degree in pedagogy?
Whitted: Well, it was Jazz Studies. I knew the area I wanted to go into was teaching on the college level. That was the reason I did not get an educational degree or teaching certificate. Although when I did first graduate, the first thing I did was teach in the public school system. And since I didn’t have an educational degree, I was hired as a substitute teacher. But they liked what I did so I was hired as a permanent substitute teacher.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Have you been involved in education ever since?
Whitted: Yeah, from then on I worked with youth programs. There’s a program in Indianapolis called Young Audiences of Indiana, where different groups of musicians or performing ensembles or artists or whatever it is you do, go in to the school system and put on this forty-five minute program, just trying to interest kids in whatever it is you do. In our case it was music, and we would perform a quick history of jazz. This was with a drummer, when I first started doing it I was in his band, Jack Gilfoy, who used to play with Henry Mancini. He had this fairly light program, you know, but he had some nice musicians. It was still pretty light, but the kids were just happy to have something in front of them. I had the opportunity to do that, and that introduced me in to that arena, the educational performance programs. We did this other program called the Drums of the West Africa. We had this guy, Prince Julius Adeniyi, who had a program of West African drums. And I learned a whole deal on performing these styles of music and getting the kids involved and interested. That’s important, because you know kids, if you are not careful, will leave you in a second. We dealt with all ages from kindergarten to high school. It was a wonderful experience.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What is the key to keeping the kids interested?
Whitted: Well, you have to be sincere, you have to be for real. You can’t kid them or half step in front of them, because they will pick it up. They know when you are not sincere, when it’s not really what you want to be doing. And you have to keep moving, so there’s no down time. You don’t want them to sit––it’s not that you don’t want them to think. You want them to think, but you don’t want to leave them any space. The programs would move pretty quickly and you had to involve the kids. You can’t say, We are going to play some music for you, and these are some great musicians, because they don’t know that. The kids loved it, plus we had great musicians, so that also helped.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you find that being involved with education opened up more opportunities for you, or created limitations for you, like not being able to travel on out-of-town gigs?
Whitted: Education always creates opportunity. The most important thing we can do is pass whatever we know on to someone else––the positives hopefully, although the negatives, too. If they are aware enough, the kids can learn from those, too, like what not to do. But we want to pass the positives on. We want to help young people to find the quickest ways to success, and to beautiful thinking, and opportunities in life, more so than we had. And that’s everybody’s job. Everybody is a teacher, just by their example, and kids are very observant. So you can tell them anything, but if you are not doing it, or you are not practicing it, or if they see a conflict in anything you are saying or doing, they are going wonder what’s up, and you are going to have to explain it, or they will call you a hypocrite.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What would you consider to be your first big break, performance-wise?
Whitted: I don’t even know if I can think of a first big break. I remember a big performance––it was with the family band. I say the family band. It was one of the few times all of our family was able to get together. Because my uncles and aunts, it was like they threw a bomb down and everybody went in every kind of direction. My Uncle Maceo was a great trumpet player. As a matter of fact, David Baker had recordings of him playing in the late fifties and sixties. He used them as examples of great musicians who never became well known, famous, whatever. Because my uncle went in to the ministry. He became a minister. He is a very spiritual person, and we talk all the time. But that was his choice, which was great, and he’s helped so, so many people. But back then it caused a little rift between a couple of family members, because they wanted everybody to go make it big in music, like my Uncle Slide. He had always said he wasn’t even the best one. And Uncle Maceo and Uncle Russell, without a doubt, they could have made it in the industry and the music world. But they made different choices, which I respect. So the family sort of split up in different directions. There was one time, though––Uncle Slide wasn’t there––when the other part of the family were: Uncle Maceo, Uncle Russell, Aunt Carmen, my mother and all the immediate family. So it was like a big band. It was for a church function, and we did these arrangements my uncle wrote out. He was into Miles, and it was great, really beautiful. It was the first time I had heard my Uncle Maceo play. He walked out and started playing this solo, and it just blew my mind, and that was a defining moment in my life. Because, I always respected him, but he gave that up to follow God, and that was big to me, you know. So with that and the way he played, I said that’s a special individual. And what he played was also special. It just changed my life: it was a performance, but it was really a defining performance for me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did what happened that day manifest itself in you?
Whitted: It taught me that I had to carry myself in a certain way, and you try to do it 24/7, but nobody’s perfect. It is always in my mind. Someone is always watching how you act and what you do, or how you present yourself. Somebody is watching, and it could have that same effect on them. It could be their defining moment, and if you don’t rise to the occasion, then they don’t have their defining moment. So we all have a responsibility, and it’s not just words.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did that experience lead you to pursue teaching even more aggressively?
Whitted: Well, when that happened I was still pretty young. I mean, I knew I wanted to go in to education, and as time went on it only solidified my desire to pursue that. So when I graduated from graduate school, the first thing I started to do was teach. They put me in grade schools first. Then they put me in high schools, and I was blessed to have the ability to engage the students, to keep them interested, motivated. And a lot of programs that weren’t really moving, we were able to get moving. And the students started to get interested and enrollment picked up, and the attitude started to get better and better. It was something that definitely showed me I was on the right track as far as which way I was going, so that helped a lot. Then, I also started my own band in Indianapolis, and there were a lot of talented musicians. So I know that I’m not just going to walk out there, All right, I’m here, take me as I am. I understood that. But when I graduated, there was a band director, he lived in Bloomington, down near the university. And when I was in graduate school, I called him. I don’t think he’s still with us. He was a nice guy, but I’ll tell this story. Al Cobine was a contractor, a band director––just about all the musicians would go through his group in some fashion, if they were, among the top-notch players. So I called him and said, “Al, I just wanted to give you my name and introduce myself, let you know who I am. If you are ever hung up for musicians, could you throw me on your list, and I would love to work for you.” and he said, “Well Pharez, I appreciate that, but what I really like to do is hire the working musicians coming out of school who need work.” And I said, “I appreciate that.” And life goes on. Then I graduate and I’m living in Indianapolis, and––this is years later––and I call Al back. And I said, “This is Pharez Whitted. I’m out of school now, living in Indianapolis, and I would enjoy working for you, if you could put me on your list.” And he said, “Well, usually if I need a substitute, I usually just go over to the school and talk to the director to see who could work.” I said, “I appreciate that.” But I did what mother said, “Keep your cool and don’t get yourself in trouble, don’t get angry.” And he flip-flopped on me, but it told me you have to make your own way around here, because there was a little racism going on in the city, and a lot of the black musicians didn’t get to do shows or the big production things that paid. And the union really didn’t help, so there was a lot of friction in that way. So I said, “Okay, if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.” I started my band and we became very popular, worked a lot, and to the degree where everybody knew who we were: the crowds were large, and the following was massive, and it would be publicized, it would be in the paper. And the union started sending me letters: you were playing here, you were playing there, you didn’t sign a contract. I was in the union because of trust fund jobs, which actually came, not from the union, but from audiences that had heard us perform. So I said, “Look guys, you take all your work dues for all the other jobs I get through you. But all these other jobs you didn’t have anything to do with, and as a matter of fact you never got me a job. And you never supported my causes in a system set up to keep me out. So I don’t know why you want me to pay you for something you don’t have anything to do with. So, why don’t we do this: you handle your thing, I’ll handle mine. And if there’s a problem you come talk to me, but other than that you’re not getting any money from me.” Eventually they left me alone.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You created your own demand.
Whitted: Exactly, and so we helped others to do that as well. And we tried to knock down some walls, and tried to do it in a respectful way, because I know everybody’s not like that, they just get caught up in the system. So it was an education.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was your local band like?
Whitted: It was small, a quintet––trumpet, vocalist and the rhythm section––but it was one of the tightest bands. The name of the band was Decoy. And I got that from Miles Davis, from his album called Decoy. We were that for years, and we were on all the festivals and the concert series, the major ones, you know, the nice ones. We had a wonderful following, and it was very successful. And we treated people well, the music was a wide range, a good mix and well played. Very, very good musicians.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Who were you listening to growing up that influenced your playing?
Whitted: The first trumpet player that really stuck out was Louis Armstrong. That’s because my mother had a lot of albums around the house, she had a lot of Louis Armstrong. And it really stuck out for me, because I loved the freedom of his playing, and that whole way of life, because of what was going on back in the sixties––oppression, that kind of thing. And the thing about jazz culturally––where it comes from, it comes out of the African American experience more so than anything. And what is special about the music is not just improvisation or harmony. Harmony is beautiful, it’s a big part of the music and I love it. But the freedom, the improvisation is part of that. But we get so caught up in the technical, the school-learned, approach to playing music, that we lose sight of what it was there for in the first place. Black people had no rights, they had no privileges, they were repressed—you know, coming through the back door—you didn’t get to wear the nice clothes. You went to get work and that opportunity wasn’t there. The jazz musician was somebody everybody looked up to. They were able to wear nice clothes, they were on the stage, everybody saw them. They played with a freedom, which is what the black people didn’t have at that time. They were able to, with that freedom from the stage, pronounce, Hey, this is for everybody, not just one group of people. And everybody could hear it––they didn’t all understand it, but they could all hear it. And even though some people didn’t want to accept it, it was so strong they had to. And that was one of the few, if not the only opportunity, of black people. They had sports, and maybe people looked up to them for that, but they had music. It was special, it was big. That freedom is something that people don’t understand. It was a cultural thing that was part of the times. That is what jazz always reflected, the times. And it doesn’t do that so much today, which is the problem––it doesn’t have the impact it had, or the association with life that it had.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Let’s follow two trains of thought that you have brought up. Wynton Marsalis once defined jazz as “Democracy in music.” It came out of the black community 100 years ago, and it gave them a voice. It seems that you would agree with that.
Whitted: Yeah, yeah. I mean the beautiful thing about the culture is it is inclusive. See, black people never said, Hey, this is our music, you can’t have anything to do with that. It was always, Hey, come on in. And that is why all the white musicians came on in. And they were cool with the culture, and the music and the tradition. That’s why they were able to embrace it. And they grew in it, you know, your Benny Goodmans, your Jackie McCleans. They were able to embrace the culture, they could hang out with black people, there were no problems. Benny Goodman was one of the first to fight for the rights of the black members of the band. He said, If you don’t treat them with the same respect as us, then we won’t play. That was big and strong to do that. It was a combination, as they started to all come together, to make that whole movement change society. Because jazz was a major component as far as change in the culture and they way people were thinking. And it was an opportunity for them to be out for people to see them in that light. Where else were they going to see that?
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Perhaps the two people who most embodied what you are talking about in terms of connecting blacks with mainstream society would be Louis Armstrong and Nat Cole, because they were very visible. With the advent of television, they would come in to people’s homes every week. For many people, this was their first exposure to blacks.
Whitted: Yeah, and I think the beautiful thing about that is they represented the community well. No one is perfect. Take Charlie Parker. If Charlie Parker had been the first, they would have been on top of him: Well, he drinks and does drugs, people would have overlooked the beauty he gave to the world because of that. What Miles Davis did: people would have overlooked all the beauty that they contributed to the world, how they really changed the world. It’s one of those things we still have trouble with.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The other train of thought is the idea of freedom. If you look at jazz up through the mid-sixties, it seems to move in the direction of giving the artist more and more freedom. Scatting, for example, was a way for the singer to break from the lyric and work more with the music. Bebop was a way to break free from the constraints from the existing standards within the jazz community, which ultimately led to Ornette Coleman and free jazz and so on.
Whitted: For me, jazz just branched out like branches from a tree. And there’s several different directions that it started to go. And free jazz was one of them. But there was also still what was going with post-bop or soulful jazz or funk or whatever. Like what Horace Silver was doing and people like that. What Blakey was doing. There was still jazz going in those directions too. Free jazz was just a branch, but the root has always been consistent. To me, jazz is really rhythm and blues. That is the core element of jazz. Improvisation, you had that in Classical music. Mozart and Beethoven, they improvised and it was hip. But in jazz, what makes this music is the feel, the voice, and the yearning. That’s blues—the yearning for that freedom. And that is what gives jazz the quality
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