Jo Whitaker has made a habit of looking into the future. A rock ’ *’ roll drummer since 1978, he figured out that there wasn’t much of a future in it, so he began learning to play jazz. Today he drums with three local jazz pianists — Danny Sample, Roddy Noll and David Walters — and stays busy in the process.
He does still get to feed his rock jones with Lumbar Five, and he is part of the Shock Theater Orchestra. He said he is excited that an album he did with Somnambulist in 2001, “The Paranormal Humidor,” continues to thrive in some avant-garde circles around the world.
“Our best review came from Uzbekistan,” he said. “That’s been my running joke. They love us in Uzbekistan.”
He said a follow-up album is being discussed.
Whitaker has worked in the mental-health field for more than 30 years. A few years ago, Whitaker took a job with Joe Johnson Mental Health Center. He went back to school and in 2009 earned his degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“It’s a job I can do with my eyes closed, but I needed the degree. I’m glad I did it. It was really cool going back to school in a lot of ways,” he said.
Q: How long have you been playing music locally?
A: My first professional job was in 1978 with Nite Owl.
Q: With Kenny Foley, one of the great voices in Chattanooga, right?
A: Yes. Kenny’s one of the best screamers in town, for sure.
Q: Have you worked in music steadily this whole time?
A: Pretty much. After Nite Owl, I put together a typical frat-house cover band with my ex-wife, and we did fairly well for about two years. In 1985, I had that big ol’ PA and I knew how to hook it up and run it, so I hauled it around doing parties and shows for about four or five years. It kind of made me mad because I did really well moneywise, but I wasn’t playing.
In 1990, I started working in a couple of local studios. I worked at Chase Productions in Cleveland, then at the Sound Lab. Then I got involved at Da House Production in Ringgold with a partner.
Q: When you say working, do you mean as an engineer and producer or playing?
A: All of it.
Education: City High School, Chattanooga State, UTC.
Children: Son, Aaron; daughter, Angel.
Vocation: Joe Johnson Mental Health Center.
Music: Rufus, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chick Corea, Perfect Circle, Fishbone.
Movie: “The Cooler,” “Bound.”
Book: “The Alienist.”
Song: “Signed, Sealed Delivered.”
Q: I’ve always known you as a rock drummer. How did the jazz thing come about?
A: That really goes back to my parents. Both of them were piano players. My mom won some awards in high school and college. She could read music but could not improvise well. My dad could not read music but was a jazz player. He would make me listen to jazz records and made me count them out and read the bridge.
Later, I took piano lessons and then flute. When I was around 10, I started pulling the cardboard things off of hangers and whacking on stuff with them. My dad bought a pawn-shop [drum] kit. It was a gold sparkle Apollo. A jazz-swing beat was the first beat I ever learned.
When I was teenager, I got into rock ’ *’ roll. I was into Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer. He came from a big-band, jazz background.
Q: How did you end up in these jazz outfits?
A: I knew that it would be a way to keep playing. I knew I had to be that cheesy guy at the wedding sitting in the corner, but I’d still be playing. It’s tough to keep playing rock, so 15 or 20 years ago I started practicing at it. It took awhile to get jazz under my belt. It still feels way off. I don’t have the technique, but I feel like my musicality helps me make it work.
I have varied interests and tastes. I just like to play all the different styles. My favorites are soul and R&B. You’re rocking it and smacking and rocking but still staying back in the pocket a little bit.
I’m a huge fan of contemporary black gospel. The musicianship and chord changes are really cool. I’m also a huge fan of classical fusion from the ’70s. I even like some death metal.
Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...