A perfect gig
Noted jazz critic glides into new genre, the classroom
Kevin Whitehead lives and works surrounded by evidence
of his passion for jazz. R. Steve Dick/University Relations
By Jennifer Kepka
After working for “an insanely long time” — 18 years — as
the jazz critic for “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio,
Kevin Whitehead faced a whole new audience last year: classrooms full
“I’ve been wanting to teach for a while but couldn’t figure
out how to make the transition,” says Whitehead, a special lecturer in
English and American studies.
In the fall of 2004, Whitehead followed his partner, Deb Olin Unferth, assistant
professor of English, to KU, where a joint appointment in English and American
studies offered just the opportunity he’d been looking for. And after years
of carefully scripting his radio reviews, preparing for class presentations was
not that daunting.
I’ve been blessed with very good students,” he says.
He taught classes on jazz autobiography and on arts reviewing and a two-semester
jazz history course last year, all of which he’ll offer in 2005-06.
Each class had its own challenges. His jazz autobiography class, for instance, “kind
of amazes me, for the number of directions we can go in,” Whitehead says.
The class discusses everything from oral histories to the effects of
textual editing and the ethics of releasing candid recordings of artists
deaths. “Every book presents a different set of problems,” he says.
Before coming to KU, Whitehead spent four years in Chicago, writing freelance
concert reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and contributing to Down Beat magazine and the Chicago Reader. Before that, Whitehead spent
four years in Holland working on “New Dutch Swing,” published by
Billboard Books in 1998. The book came out of Whitehead’s desire to make
sense of the music he heard on a 1991 trip to Holland.
Music that had confounded me when I’d heard it on record suddenly seemed
much less confusing when I saw the musicians interacting with each other on stage,” he
says. “There was often a visual, theatrical element that I hadn’t
really been aware of. The Dutch scene had a healthy sense of absurdity and an
eagerness to mix musical genres. It was time for somebody outside Holland to
write about it.”
Whitehead used periodic travel grants from the Dutch Jazz Institute
to attend concerts, interview current musicians and research the
history of Dutch jazz.
The trip, which he had envisioned as a three-month journey, ended up lasting
I had the typical expatriate experience,” he says. “Confronting other
people’s culture makes you confront your own.”
Whitehead continued writing about jazz after his return, and an archive
of his monthly jazz columns is available at www.eMusic.com. Through
it all, Whitehead
also kept up with his job at NPR.
I really believe it’s the best gig a jazz critic could have,” he
Because his reviews, which are broadcast every two to three weeks, play for
a large, culturally aware audience, and because each review includes a brief
of the music being discussed, listeners “don’t have to take my word
for it. You do get to show and tell.”
Whitehead records 20 to 25 segments a year, each about eight minutes
in length, and half of each review is dedicated to replaying music.
They [my producers] let me do what I want, in terms of opinion and who to review,” he
says. He tries to include clips of improvisation instead of familiar choruses,
he says, because they get closer to the heart of what makes jazz so fascinating:
composing on the fly.
I’m just trying to lay out the music for people to enjoy.”
REVIEWS ON THE RADIO
For reviews by Kevin Whitehead, go to www.npr.org and click on “Music.” “Fresh
Air” is broadcast locally on KCUR 89.3-FM.