Pharez Whitted ’82 grew up in a household steeped in music, overflowing with musicians, marinated in jazz.
“For us, music is a part of your life,” he said. “It’s a part you don’t really get away from it. You don’t think of it in terms of separate.”
His grandfather, Clarke “Deacon” Hampton, orchestrated his 12 children into the Hampton Family Band in 1930s Indianapolis; the band played Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater as it toured the country. Pharez’s mother Virtue and her three sisters also performed as the Hampton Sisters. Another of the 12 is renowned trombonist and composer Slide Hampton. Pharez’s father was a drummer and his brothers played the trombone, the trumpet and the saxophone. David Baker, a famed jazz composer and professor at Indiana University School of Music, was a frequent visitor to their home.
So it is no surprise that Pharez, at age 9, plucked an idle trumpet from a closet and has never put it down.
“I was able to get a note pretty quick and I asked one of my brothers to show me one of the scales that I knew was vitally important … I wanted to learn the scale because I heard everybody practicing in the house – that was what they would practice, scales – as well as music,” he said. “It’s kind of like learning the alphabet and trying to read. You learn little basic words first so you have a starting point.”
“Music is like sunshine. A beautiful mountain scene. I’ve seen Mount Fuji, and it’s like that. It’s like a beautiful blue sky. It’s like the wind blowing by you in the summer. There are so many things. The smile of a child. It’s what changes your life at the right moment. It’s beautiful, and it’s life. It’s even the sad things. It’s everything. … Music is one of the closest things to the spiritual, like love is. ... It takes you places. It lifts you up. It inspires you. It makes you want to live. It makes you want to treat people better. It makes you want to hug your family and be a better person. It makes you want to try.”
He pursued music at Shortridge High School, where choir teacher and DePauw alum Myron El ’76 suggested Whitted – who had been eyeing IU because of Baker’s influence – might do well at DePauw.
“The reason I settled on DePauw is they blessed me with a scholarship … I’m glad I went because I had the opportunity to play in the concert band as well as the orchestra, as well as the jazz band,” he said. Had he attended a larger university or a conservatory, “I would never have had that experience. I’m a big fan of liberal arts education because it allows students to participate in other areas and still pursue whatever their career choice is.”
He also is a big fan of early music education, and his work to expose young people to music has garnered him nearly as much acclaim as his nationwide jazz trumpet performances and five CDs. Whitted works as jazz director of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra; performs at Chicago Public Schools as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s youth outreach program; travels the country to conduct clinics and master classes for Jazz at Lincoln Center and its Essentially Ellington high school program; and participates in Ravinia’s youth outreach program.
His work to inspire young people prompted the Chicago Tribune to name him a “Chicagoan of the Year” in 2017.
“I was fortunate enough to have some very good mentors, some people who took their time out to work with myself as well as other young people,” he said. “I’ve always appreciated that. it’s been a part of who I am. I guess that’s one of the things about the tradition, the culture of the jazz musician. …
“Music in general is just a wonderful thing for students to learn about self-expression, creativity, thinking outside of the box, realizing that they are more than what they think they are and it has nothing to do with them becoming a musician as a profession. … Enjoy it, get involved, have fun, meet people, learn some new things and take that with you to whatever you do.”
Whitted has taught virtually nonstop since earning a master’s degree from IU; before focusing on youths, he taught at Ohio State University and Chicago State University.
“I try to encourage students to work as hard as they possibly can and do their best and find their road – not my road, but their road – and to do the things that embellish and enlighten their lives,” he said. “It takes some introspection and some insight into one’s own mental state, where they want to go, what they want to do. They’re the only ones who can do that; you can’t do that for them. So basically my concept of teaching is I want to teach the fundamentals and then, from there, the sky is the limit.”