His loves supreme: Whitehead balances passions for music, academics

It’s a fine balance living a double life, but Oliver Whitehead has been managing it for nearly three decades.

Whitehead, who teaches part-time in the English and Comparative Literature departments at Western and King’s University College, while also working as an instructor for the Effective Writing Program at the latter, is an accomplished musician and composer.

“I’ve always sort of lived that double life. I’ve always kept music outside academics,” he said, noting juggling two careers hasn’t exactly been easy.

It certainly wasn’t planned.

During graduate school, the enthusiastic Plan A was to be an academic, Whitehead, 63, explained. But, after completing his PhD and coming to Western in 1978 to teach English at Huron University College, he started playing jazz with a handful of London musicians who encouraged him to write original compositions for their group.

Whitehead had previously only played the blues, solo in Toronto’s pubs and cafes. He readily admits jazz compositions were a departure for him. Still, composing came naturally and his jazz quintet’s first album, Free for Now, was nominated for a Juno Award as best jazz album of 1984.

“That was about the time I decided I would not keep teaching full-time. The album was pretty successful and we were having a lot of good experiences touring and playing,” Whitehead said.

His teaching may have slowed down since, but his music career hasn’t.

In addition to his jazz compositions, Whitehead has composed choral and full orchestral pieces not just for fellow musicians, but for national television, ballet and theatre as well.

It’s likely you’ve heard one of his works on CBC radio or television.

If you live in London and are in tune with its music scene, you’ll likely have caught one of his performances at a local summer festival, a church or pub. For more than a decade, Whitehead has played guitar with The Antler River Project, a local group of six versatile musicians who perform jazz tunes with a world music flair – most of them written by Whitehead.

As for the challenges that came along the way, Whitehead took them in stride.

“The most challenging (thing) was writing my first large-scale orchestral piece, We Shall Be Changed. I was really jumping into the deep end, but I got a lot more knowledge and understanding for composing for orchestra – but still, not enough. People get master’s (degrees) and doctorates and get more training after that (to write for an orchestra). You have to know how every instrument is played in order to write for it in the best way,” he explained.

As for the teaching that has, at times, during his musical career taken a back seat, Whitehead said it is his second love, a good complement to his other professional half.

“I really do love teaching literature and I feel very lucky to be able to do that for a job. I love reading it, thinking about it and having the chance to go in and share my thoughts with students. That’s a great thing to be able to do,” he said, adding performing music in front of large crowds has translated to an improved teaching style.

“I think the two (music and teaching) feed into each other. When I was performing with the quintet in front of large audiences, it gave me a lot of confidence and introduced me to the excitement of actually expressing something to a large audience,” Whitehead explained.

“It’s a difficult balance but it’s a very rewarding balance. The only reason it’s so difficult is that I’d like to be able to do more music. I’d like to have two of me, to be cloned,” he said with a laugh.

The Antler River Project’s latest album, latitude 43, is a blend of jazz and world music, with African and Latin American influences. It can be previewed and purchased on the group’s website.