Bringing the Blue Thunder
Standing on the turf of CenturyLink Field amidst the deafening roar of the 67,000 strong fans, alumnus Jesse Whitford pounds on his drum to the beat of “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen.
The Seattle Seahawks have just won the National Football Conference Championship over the Green Bay Packers.
Whitford is part of the Blue Thunder Drumline, the official drumline for the Seattle Seahawks. Being part of the band means performing at every home game and appearing at bars and venues around Seattle for away games, Whitford said.
Attending Western from 2004 to 2009, Whitford studied in the music department and earned degrees in music performance and percussion.
During his time in Bellingham, Whitford played with the Viking Band just before Western’s football program was cut, he said.
Whitford’s rise to such a professional level has been a long time coming. At nine he got his first drum from his parents, and was passionate towards drumming at a young age, he said.
“When I first started I just had this one drum and I was trying to find other things to play on. I was down in my friend’s basement and we found a [circular] saw blade. We stuck it up on a stick and we would hit it [along with my drum],” Whitford said. “It was pretty dangerous looking back on it.”
A year later, Whitford got his first drum set. He took lessons and played all throughout high school in his hometown of Vashon Island, he said. Drumming gave him a physical outlet to release his artistic passion.
“Playing drums, you’re playing music and you’re [using] musical ideas, but you get to hit stuff,” Whitford said. “Then just seeing other drummers who looked cool and I [tried to learn] as much as I could.”
When pressed to apply for college, Whitford was not without options. After getting accepted to University of Washington, Berklee College of Music in Boston and Western, Whitford decided to attend Western because he wanted to practice under Percussion Area Coordinator Patrick Roulet.
Finally Western bound, Whitford came to campus only to find that Roulet had gone elsewhere to teach that year; he decided he would stick it out, he said.
He didn’t find himself regretting it.
“It was good. I kind of picked Western because it was a smaller school. You get access to your professors and I always liked the classroom environment,” Whitford said.
The music program at Western has about 240 majors and minors to work in, so there are smaller units that function pretty tightly, said Christopher Bianco, chair of Western’s music department.
Whitford played in the Viking band and the wind symphony, which Bianco is the conductor of.
Although Bianco hasn’t spoken with Whitman for a couple years, he keeps track of how he’s doing through another student who plays in the Blue Thunder, Bianco said. The music profession is a small world, and staying in touch with students for professional reasons is common, he said.
“When [Whitford] was here his talent was obvious, and we gave him an opportunity to play with the wind symphony as a timpani soloist,” Bianco said. “He performed admirably with us as a soloist.”
During his time at Western, Whitford was a force to be reckoned with, as he knew how to play every percussion instrument, Bianco said.
After graduating from Western, Whitford auditioned for the Seattle Sounders’ band, the Sound Wave, and became a part of the band.
“Getting out of Western and moving back to Seattle, [the Sound Wave] was one of the first gigs I got doing music stuff,” Whitford said.
Whitford has balanced the two gigs, remaining a part of the Sound Wave Sounders FC Band as well as recently joining Blue Thunder. He’s performed with the Sound Wave for going on four years now, but doesn’t think he will return to the Sounders next season, Whitford said.
Blue Thunder, comprised of 33 percussionists, is the “heartbeat of the fans,” according to the Seahawks website.
Standing on the field during the last two NFC championship games has been a highlight of performing with the Blue Thunder, Whitford said.
“Getting to meet other famous drummers who come through the stadium [is pretty cool as well,]” Whitford said.
Since becoming part of the band, Whitford has had the opportunity to meet drummers from Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and John Mellencamp’s drummer, who is one of his favorites, he said.
Performing for and entertaining tens of thousands of people each week is not easy, especially when they are only playing percussion, Whitford said.
“One of the challenges of being in the drumline is trying to present songs that people will recognize just through the drums,” Whitford said.
Some of the popular songs that the Blue Thunder performs are “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen after every home game victory and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, Whitford said.
“We have about 30 songs that we play,” Whitford said. “Being in the drumline [requires] learning a lot of music, a lot of technique and a lot of dancing.”
Whitford’s love of the drums has led him to a career with many opportunities to meet people who inspire him and spread his joy for the drums to others.
The music community at Western provided opportunities for Whitford even after graduation, he said.
“Being in the music community, you rely on each other. When somebody is putting something together they call the people they know,” Whitford said. “I have definitely gotten work just from knowing people from the music department.”
Bianco misses having Whitford around, but is glad he’s able to perform and knows he loves playing with the Blue Thunder.
“I want people to know they can continue to play music,” Whitford said. “There are opportunities out there that people might not even know about, every year [Blue Thunder auditions are] open to people.”