Alum ensures that the SDSU beat goes on

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In January 2017, Louis Whitehead joined Dr. David Reynolds for an evening of Jackrabbit basketball.

Reynolds, the director of the School of Performing Arts, doesn’t really recall how the game turned out. For the SDSU Pep Band and Jazz Bands, that night was a game-changer. At halftime, Reynolds and Whitehead walked over to the pep band to say hello to Louis’ former SDSU bandmate, Dr. Kevin Kessler, a 1998 Music Education graduate and now Director of Athletic Bands.

As Reynolds and Whitehead were making their way back to their seats for the second half, Whitehead asked if the band might be interested in a new drum kit. That simple question changed everything for the SDSU Pep Band.

Whitehead has been playing the drums since he was 9 years old. He played at Brookings High School, then in the Pride of the Dakotas and the SDSU Pep Band as an undergrad. Now the 2002 journalism graduate works as a Brookings real estate investor while staying active in three area bands. 

More than just a musician, however, Whitehead has become something of a self-taught expert on drum kits. “I’ve always been a drum enthusiast, from high school to the present,” Whitehead said. “I try to keep up with different styles different musicians are using. A lot of it is just experience but also a lot of study.”

That research ultimately benefited SDSU. “He certainly saw a need for a kit that was not only of a higher quality, just in regard to the drums themselves,” Kessler said, “but also could feature school colors and show off university branding a lot better.”

Whitehead’s interest didn’t stop with the Pep Band drum kit. As the conversation evolved, he learned that the Jazz Ensembles likely needed a new kit as well. 

No one in the Music Department seems to know the vintage of the drum kits that were being reviewed. Associate Professor Aaron Ragsdale said the kits pre-dated his arrival at the university.

Ragsdale hails the new jazz kit as top of the line. “Any guest artist we have, any potential student we have, any student we have now can look at this kit and see that’s a part of our program that we’re very serious about,” Ragsdale said. 

The gift of the jazz drum kit was about $3,500. That doubled for the Pep Band kit. Pep bands, by their very nature, have more swagger and, consequently, need more swag.

The Pep Band kit is decked out in SDSU colors with Jackrabbits on the bass drum and SDSU branding on the toms and snare. Drum kits usually have metal rims in nickel or silver. Whitehead insisted on gold rims to compliment the drums’ SDSU blue. 

The difference in the kits isn’t just in branding. A jazz kit needs to project out into a concert hall; a pep band kit needs to reach the rafters at Frost Arena. 

Kessler said basketball fans will notice a difference in the way the pep band’s drums sound, and the television cameras have noticed the look. 

“It fills the large spaces that it’s used in -- Frost Arena and anyplace else that we take it for basketball -- it just fills the spaces so much better,” Kessler said. “It’s a cleaner sound. It’s definitely a serious step up in sound quality.”

Kessler’s praise doesn’t end there. “In my opinion, it is, hands down, the finest drum set that’s being used in college athletic bands today, both in regard to the quality of the drums and the aesthetic beauty of the kit,” Kessler said. “I just can’t find a comparison.”

In fact, the manufacturer of the custom drums, featured the kit on its social media while they were being produced and positive and envious comments (both on the drums and the distinctive Jackrabbit logo) appeared from around the globe.  Whitehead’s insistence on branding the Pep Band’s kit didn’t stop with the drums. He also provided travel cases in SDSU blue. 

“That’s a detail that someone else may have overlooked,” Ragsdale said. “But Louis said, ‘Let’s take care of it. Let’s make sure it screams SDSU all the way through the process.’ It’s no understatement to say that not everybody would do that.”

The Pep Band kit saw its first action Dec. 30, 2017 at a basketball game featuring an alumni pep band. Appropriately, Whitehead was the first to inaugurate the drums in which he had invested so much thought and study.

“Louis got to play the drum set the first game it was used and that was really cool,” Reynolds said. “I’m glad that happened because it’s well-deserved. His gift already has impacted so many.  The drums went to the NCAA Tournament, and don’t think they weren’t noticed by the competing school bands!”

“I’m really happy with how the finish and the graphics turned out visually. It’s definitely striking,” Whitehead said. “The drums sound great, too. They are really fun to play!”

Whitehead’s generosity has touched students and faculty. “It feels good to know that we’re in a place that produces people who are that passionate about what we do and about their university,” Ragsdale said.

It’s that passion that drives Whitehead.  “I’ve just always been a supporter of education and the things I’m passionate about and wanting to share that with other people and help other people to enjoy those, too,” he said. “That’s mainly what drives my giving.”