By Shaun Brady | Photo by Palmer Swanson
Jonathan W. Whitney’s earliest memory is of a drum set arriving at his childhood home in Newark, Delaware. “It was a gold Ludwig set,” Whitney says, a trace of wonder in his voice even decades later. “I can still see it.”
Based on that anecdote, it would seem like Whitney’s fate was sealed that day – and maybe it was, but destiny took a circuitous route. Between that delivery and the release last November of Life’s Dimensions, the debut album by the Wilmington-based drummer’s band The Whitney Project, came a dalliance with studying chemistry, an 11-year stint as band director at the Tatnall School, and a rediscovery of Whitney’s passion for composing and performing original music.
Whitney is a second-generation drummer, though he never saw his father (the intended recipient of that golden kit) perform. During Jonathan’s childhood his father, who had played in Top 40 cover bands prior to his son’s birth, instead ran his own organ repair business, which included maintenance on the instrument at Veterans Stadium. But he was an indelible influence nonetheless.
“My dad never really instructed me, beyond there always being a drum set in the house and positive feedback to go down and play,” Whitney recalls. “But I learned playing along to a reel to reel recording of one of his old gigs. I’d just play that same three-hour gig over and over again.”
Whitney discovered jazz in sixth grade band, which led him to dig out Duke Ellington’s Ellington Uptown, featuring Louis Bellson on drums, from his father’s collection. Not long after his uncle gifted him a new CD player and a copy of Miles Davis’ Tutu. “So in school we were playing kid arrangements of ‘Satin Doll’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’” he says. “Then at home I have this CD of Tutu that I’m listening to, thinking, ‘This is from the same world?’ It definitely showed me that jazz has a broad palette, and that we have so many colors to choose from. My ears were open early.”
“It definitely showed me that jazz has a broad palette, and that we have so many colors to choose from. My ears were open early.”
After applying to the University of Delaware as a chemistry major, Whitney delved deeply into the drumline world, practicing for hours each day. That prompted him to switch his major to jazz education, which eventually led to the mentorship of trumpet great Dr. Donald Byrd. “He helped me discover my philosophy of jazz,” Whitney explains. “People would always ask him to play something that he’d made famous, and he would say, ‘I don’t want to play that old shit.’ It made me realize that part of being a jazz musician is composing and pushing the music forward.”
“It made me realize that part of being a jazz musician is composing and pushing the music forward.”
After graduation Whitney took the band director position at Tatnall while moonlighting at the famed Ortlieb’s jam sessions, playing in rock bands and accompanying the singer-songwriter Lili Añel. But a little more than a decade into that role, the lessons he’d learned from Dr. Byrd were reawakened and he decided to rededicate himself to his own music.
He enrolled in graduate studies at UArts and began gigging and composing, culminating in the release of Life’s Dimensions. The album reflects Whitney’s life experience – the spectrum-spanning diversity of his earliest influences, a dedication to education through music, and a strong message of activism and engagement.
The latter remains a core mission for Whitney. After working as manager of performance programs and community engagement at the Delaware Art Museum he founded his own company, Flux Creative Consultants, to help organizations, governments and corporations connect with communities.
Until COVID put a halt to in-person congregating, Whitney also served as artist-in-residence at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew in Wilmington. Current projects include a multi-media collaboration inspired by the Delaware Watershed and a new Whitney Project piece proposing “black joy” as the ultimate protest against the historic mistreatment of African-Americans in this country.
Whitney’s life in music has been as wide-ranging and often unpredictable as the music he now creates with The Whitney Project. But he does see vital thread that weaves through all of it.
“At all points in my life,” he says, “I can point to ways that my goal was to help people. If I was teaching drumlines, my real focus was on helping these boys and girls become young men and women.”
“At all points in my life,” he says, “I can point to ways that my goal was to help people. If I was teaching drumlines, my real focus was on helping these boys and girls become young men and women. At the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew, I realized that I could use that residency as a platform to speak about changing injustice. And that’s all deepened my understanding of the art form.”