MSU’s Professors of Jazz featured in upcoming festival

Published 9:31 am Monday, May 2, 2016

A day of valuable musical lessons for children and a night of swingin’ jazz for families awaits patrons of the upcoming Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, courtesy of Michigan State University’s Professors of Jazz.

The seven-man jazz band will visit the Grand Old City Friday, May 13, performing in a pair of concerts as part of the 25th anniversary of the Dowagiac festival. First, the group will offer a jazz master class in the festival’s annual Klassics For Kids concert, at 1 p.m. at the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center.

Later that night, the Professors will perform in a show at 7:30 p.m. at the Dale A. Lyons Building theater on the campus of Southwestern Michigan College.

Keeping in this festival’s theme of featuring artists from Michigan, the Professors of Jazz is comprised entirely of faculty from the jazz department with MSU’s College of Music. The band’s members include:

• Rodney Whitaker, bass and musical director

• Xavier Davis, piano

• Randy “Uncle G” Gelispie, drums

• Michael Dease, trombone

• Diego Rivera, saxophone

• Etienne Charles, trumpet

• Randy Napoleon, guitar

The group was established in 2000, specializing in playing classics from the jazz canon, including the works of John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson, along with compositions created by the musicians themselves, said Cookey Whitaker, a member of the MSU jazz department who manages the group.

“We created an entity inside the department so we could go out and perform for revenue, not just for the professors but the jazz department and College of Music,” Whitaker said. “The money generated goes for scholarships, trips. It all goes back toward the students.”

In addition to performing in a series of annual concerts for students at the university, the group has completed residencies with Detroit Symphony Hall, the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, and the Arts League of Michigan Jazz at the Center — performing with dozens of notable international jazz artists in the process.

In spite of the difficulty of coordinating their busy teaching schedules in order to come together to play, the professors always try to make time to share their years of experience in music with master classes, workshops and other events geared toward teaching, such as Dogwood’s Klassics for Kids, Whitaker said.

“Their whole operation is geared toward preparing the next generation of jazz artists and educators,” she said.

Visitors to either of the group’s pair of performances May 13 will be in for a musical treat, Whitaker said.

“They’re so engaging,” she said. “They love what they do. The audience will be able to feel that immense love they have for that style of music we call jazz.”

Tickets for the Saturday evening concert cost $20; admission for the Klassics for Kids performance is free, though registration is required.

The 2016 Dogwood Fine Arts Festival takes place May 5-15. For information or tickets, people can contact the festival office at (866) 490-2847.