By Karl Stober
JazzReview.com – April 2008
In my exploration for a new artist-entrepreneur, my friend Kari (who is a pundit of independent performer’s) set my course to a unique and vibrant siren that swings with a pioneering eloquence. Adorning a smile that would light up the Broadway skyline and a revolutionary instinct that is tenacious by nature, flutist Ragan Whiteside entered unplugged, into my compilation of uncut diamonds. With ease and assured conviction, I can state Ragan has fashioned a masterful unveiling spin, branded Class Axe. Ragan by all definition is funks bequest to jazz!
Ragan has such a unique free-spirit to her performances while she kneads the flutes seductive tones. The individuality of her music emulates her attitude in her writing which mutually complies with the audience’s passion for a new jazz feel. With an intently sensitive ear, one can decipher each note as they interact with her fellow artist’s roles in their performances. “Class Axe’ has a definite affect on the one who spins its virtuosity!
Aristotle stated once “The flute is not an instrument which has a good moral effect. It is too exciting.” To the recipient of her talents this quote is alarmingly true, as Ragan Whiteside conducts her craft with a revivalist fervor.
Accept her stimulating vocal performance and focus in on her movements instrumentally. The sensual ease and exhilarating attitude that ignite from her flute is masterfully intensive. You will never look at the flutes underestimated capabilities the same again. The meltdown of funk mixed with the classic jazz tones makes Ragan a musical trailblazer!
So who is Ragan Whiteside, where does she reign from, and most important how does the mystical music form its beauty and work within the funk/jazz world? You, the reader will explore her world through our conversation …then you may be introduced to her energy and passionate love affair with sounds of an extra dimension.
Along with Ragan’s insight I have solicited the opinions of broadcaster and charismatic jazz performer Bob Baldwin who will offer his views of this exciting flutiest extraordinaire.
As the spin starts and the funk transforms, lets now go between sets with one of jazz’s new treasures, Ragan Whiteside…
JazzReview: Let’s get right into it by exploring first who Ragan is! What makes her spin as a person and as a musician?
Ragan Whiteside: I love all things creative, so creative energy is what keeps me going. I thrive on meeting new people, exchanging ideas, traveling, and enjoying everything life has to offer. Above all, I love to laugh!
JazzReview: In jazz there is a certain “Feel” to the vibes and sounds of the beast. How do you describe the “Feel” of the Ragan experience?
Ragan Whiteside: Hmmm… I guess funky, yet smooth… “Feel good” music
JazzReview: You have a “Flutetatiousness” about your performance… A very seductive yet stylishly flirty temperament, so talk to the progression of your style and how it got to this point.
Ragan Whiteside: Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to many flute players, so I listened to a lot of other instruments like guitar, trumpet, and sax, as well as a wide variety of bands and vocalists. Believe it or not, if you took a cross-section of the music played in my house growing up, you would find Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, New Birth, Johnny Mathis, Kathleen Battle, Rick James, Earl Klugh, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Doobie Bros, to name a few. Weird, huh? (Smile) So I guess if you take all of that, combine it with my classical training, and throw my December 7th personality in there…
JazzReview: There is no question you have rejuvenated the flutes place in jazz. You’re manipulation of the instrument along with the arrangements brings life to a new vibrant sound. Where did this sound come from? When did you realize you found that sound or have you yet?
Ragan Whiteside: I think my sound is always a work in progress. No matter how far you get, there is always room for improvement. I have been blessed to work with two amazing producers/mentors, Bob Baldwin and Dennis Johnson. Bob helped me make the difficult transition from classical to jazz, while Dennis taught me the “ins and outs” of the studio, from equipment to recording techniques. Our birthdays are all within a week of each other, so when we get together in the studio there’s a lot of crazy Sagittarian energy bouncing around. (It’s amazing we manage to get anything done!) I always look forward to seeing where that energy will take us next.
JazzReview: Let’s go back a bit in your past and you first, like many artists started, in the classical genre. What made you turn to jazz and at what moment did you realize it was the right move to make?
Ragan Whiteside: Actually, I always wanted to go into jazz, but when I began taking private flute lessons at age 11, it was “strongly recommended” that I develop a classical foundation first. So, against my will I started studying classical music. As I learned more about it and understood the nuances that made it great, I really enjoyed playing classical pieces. I enjoyed it so much I entered and won competitions, and later went to a music conservatory for college. However, about 6 weeks before I graduated, I realized that my heart just wasn’t in it anymore. There were things I wanted to do with the flute that just weren’t allowed. So, lost and heavy-hearted I graduated and went back home to NY. Shortly after I got back, I saw Bob Baldwin & Marion Meadows at a show in Westchester (NY) and I was instantly hooked. After the show I had a chance to speak with Bob… long story short, he became my mentor, and the rest is history.
JazzReview: Songwriting and arranging is a craft unto itself. You seem to embrace this part of your life so the question is why?
Ragan Whiteside: Songwriting is a wonderful creative outlet. I can explore and expand more than I can with flute alone.
JazzReview: Take us through your creative process from the birth of the idea to execution of sound.
Ragan Whiteside: For some reason, musical ideas come to me in the shower (which sometimes works against me if I’m in a rush to go somewhere). Sometimes it starts with a melody; other times a bass line… or even just a rhythm. Then I sing it to myself over and over until I sit down at the keyboard and work it out. Once I have a solid framework, I’ll take it to Bob and Dennis, who will then fill it out and put the “shine” on it. Other times, Dennis will come up with a killer track and I will write a melody for it.
JazzReview: Class Axe is an sharp piece of jazz innovation. From the Funk of the beat to the angelic vocals it is by far one of the best debut spins jazz has been exposed to for a long time. When did you first start on the concept for it? How did you go through the selection of cuts for it?
Ragan Whiteside: This album originally started out as a 3 song demo, but it just kept growing. Dennis, Bob and I were caught up in a good creative wave, so we just kept riding it.
JazzReview: Did Class Axe meet your expectations thus far both in response from the public and in personal accomplishment?
Ragan Whiteside: I am extremely happy that this album has been released. It is something I have wanted to do since I was a child, and a lot of blood, sweat, & tears went into it. There were plenty of times when I was so discouraged I wanted to quit, but seeing and hearing the finished product made everything worth while. As far as my audience is concerned, I’m happy as long as one person’s mood is elevated after listening to Class Axe.
JazzReview: “Funktuation” is in a class all its own. The Whiteside flute is in funk overdrive on this spin along with an arrangement that kicks! Walk us through the sound and creation of this hit!
Ragan Whiteside: This was definitely a “shower song”. It wasn’t even going to be for the CD… I just wanted to sit down and write something. After this quirky little tune was finished, I thought it was too weird so I almost trashed it… until I played it for Dennis, who threatened bodily harm if I deleted it (LOL!). Then Bob put the “shine” on it, Dennis engineered and mixed it, and here it is!
JazzReview: Keyboardist Bob Baldwin helps influence the warm and sweet sounds of “So Glad.” In this piece he walks the ivory with a solo. That solo along with the flute sound just ignites that romantic flavor from the spin. Talk about this cut plus touch on the part played by Bob Baldwin in this project.
Ragan Whiteside: Dennis and I wrote “So Glad” because it was a direct parallel to what was happening in our own lives (and that’s all I’ll say about that aspect… *smile*). As far as Bob is concerned… wow… doing this project with him was like going to grad school. He taught me how to break every rule I learned in conservatory. He also taught me about the business side of the music business, which is equally important, especially now that it’s the age of the independent artist.
JazzReview: Break down “Break Me Down” from the funk injection to writing.
Ragan Whiteside: Dennis was responsible for the funk injection on “Break Me Down”. When I heard that track, I just HAD to write to it… it was just too funky.
JazzReview: Let’s talk about those gifted sounds that joined you in studio on Class Axe from the producer to the artists.
Ragan Whiteside: Let’s see… on “Meu Amigo, Meu Amante” (My Friend, My Lover) we were able to get Buddy Williams to record the drums. Buddy has been coined “drummer for the stars” – Luther Vandross, George Benson, David Sanborn, Bob James, Tom Browne, Earl Klugh, and most recently, a 3 year stint on the Broadway Play “Color Purple”. If you wrote out his discography on paper, you would probably take out an entire rain forest! “How Do You Know” was graced by a wicked guitarist by the name of Eddie Zack. He was just noodling around with the tune and came up with some very slick riffs. On the interlude “I’ve been Thinking”, we have the phenomenal bassist Billy Grant, who also has a resume 8 miles long and is my live bassist. “Options” showcases the creative talents of Zoiea, who not only sang, but also co-wrote the song. He is currently working on his solo album.
JazzReview: How has life changed for you after the release and sudden exposure?
Ragan Whiteside: The pace of my life has definitely picked up. I have to make a concerted effort to manage my time carefully so that I can handle the business aspects efficiently and still have time to practice. I’m dealing with the education of distribution and marketing, perfect timing with radio airplay and dates (over 60 stations are playing the record). There are no complaints though… J
JazzReview: Now that your debut is over what can jazz expect from you next…
Ragan Whiteside: We are busy putting together a tour, and we are working on the 2nd album, which will be released early 2009.
JazzReview: The music industry has had a rough time of late. What can you see that would help it get back on course?
Ragan Whiteside: I think the only way to get it back on course is to change the course all together. With technology advancing at a break-neck speed, the industry can’t continue to do things the way they did in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Like everything else, the music industry needs to re-invent itself… starting from scratch. There needs to be more synergy between the music side and the business side. If they could just find some kind of yin-yang balance between the music and the business, I believe everything will work itself out.
JazzReview: Wheredo you see jazz going in the next five years? What changes do you foresee occurring?
Ragan Whiteside: I think we’re going to start to see more urban elements in contemporary jazz, also a strong return of fusion. I’m hoping that smooth jazz radio will embrace the change and expand their playlists…
JazzReview: Now let’s fall off course… Since you are also a web designer tell us in your opinion your top five websites that you feel are most creative and enjoy.
1. ebay.com – ahh… the thrill of the hunt!
2. youtube.com – need I say more?
3. marieclaire.com – they have this feature where you can upload your picture and see what you look like with different hair styles, different clothes, etc (yeah, I know… I’m such a chick… LOL!)
4. todayshow.com – interesting topics and relatively easy to navigate
5. secondlife.com – not your typical networking site. You just have to see it for yourself…
JazzReview: Now to get to know one you need to have fun so let’s do! Answer if you will these probing questions and be blatantly honest…
1. What is your favorite hang out spot? The studio, the kitchen table, or the back porch!
2. Favorite website when just surfing? Yahoo
3. What is your favorite blog? Don’t really do the blog thing that often…
4. Your favorite non-jazz vocalist? Jill Scott, Luther Vandross, and most recently Chrisette Michele
5. If you needed to get away where do you hide? In the car, on a long drive to nowhere. If that’s not possible, then I’ll hide in the shower.
6. What gets you high? Having a great stage performance or listening to a jammin’ live band
Ragan’s Final Thought: …
Recently, the NY Metro area lost it’s only commercial Smooth Jazz station (CD101.9), leaving the NY smooth jazz audience angry and bewildered. Don’t let this happen to you! If you’re local radio station is not playing what you want to hear, send them emails and let them know. Let’s work together and breathe some new life into this genre…
After Sets with Bob Baldwin on the subject of Ragan Whiteside….
Jazztrenzz: When did you first meet Ragan Whiteside and your thoughts….?
Bob Baldwin: The day I met Ragan was at this event sometime in 1999…In this gig was Tony Cintron (great percussion who played with Tito Puente), James Robinson (who replaced Luther Vandross in the group Change) – a lot of Westchester folklore….the county also had residents such as Joey Calderazzo, John Pattitucci, Bob James, Michael Brecker, Bill Evans, Bob Mintzer..Just a little Westchester history…
Westchester County has always been an area that’s been very quiet…about 30 miles north of the city. I had a friend of mine (Wali Ali) that would do gigs every once in a while and his wife was Ossie Davis’s daughter…so doing gigs was always interesting because you never know who was going to pop up. I’ve met Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, good friends of Ossie. I always saw these guys….anyway, my friend’s wife had a girlfriend who had a daughter named Ragan Whiteside…she was in college for music and had this gleam in her eye…we were jammin at a club called August Blue Light in the very upscale Scarsdale, NY…Marion Meadows was also on the date.
I was living in Atlanta, visiting NY, and she was about 20, home from school during a break in Florida. After the gig, she introduces herself and wanted to make a record, but before that, she wanted to step outside of her classical roots and learn how to play jazz. I basically had to teach her how to hear music and hear it harmonically, without reading and without looking at a piece of music.
There’s a great discipline in her about her musicianship. All I had to do is give her a tutorial on scales and musical paths, so we did crash courses on things like that. One day, it just snapped in and she was soloing over chord changes and grooves and her writing began to open up and it was a great thing to watch evolve.
In 2002, she played on her first official sessions…on the “Bob Baldwin Presents the American Spirit”/she wrote one tune, and played on my jingle for NYC’s CD101.9 (now defunct … www.cd1019.com)
About 6 or so years later, I thought she was ready to make a record because she had enough mechanics to make it happen. I thought there were people out here that were making records that shouldn’t be based on a lot of reasons and I felt she was more than qualified to get in the game, so we made “class axe”….she’s got skills, tenacity, determination and she’s a great visionary!