Dan Whitner, 77: Jazz drummer overcame obstacles to pursue love of music

Dan Whitner never tired of playing the drums. From his earliest days beating on pots and pans in his grandmother’s kitchen to playing Atlanta jazz clubs until his death, Whitner couldn’t resist setting the tempo for his life.

It didn’t start out so swinging. Diagnosed with polio as a child, doctors said he likely never would walk.

But his grandmother refused to accept the prognosis and took him to live with her. He received regular treatments, having his joints rubbed and his limbs stretched three times a day until, eventually, he could move on his own.

Though it robbed him of driving a car, Whitner never let his disability slow him down. During his working days, which spanned three decades, he caught an early morning bus to his maintenance job at J.C. Penny. After work, he’d take another bus to work as a private contractor for janitorial services at Atlanta’s Northeast Plaza.

Later, Whitner found his way to the nightclubs where he’d play music until 2 or 3 a.m. His list of gigs included regular stints at Pascals, Dante’s Down the Hatch, Zanza Bar and at jazz festivals in Grant Park and Piedmont Park.

Whitner also played with such noted artists as Duke Pearson and Paul Mitchell.

Dan Whitner, 77, of Decatur died May 14 of natural causes at DeKalb Medical Center, the family said. No date has been set for the funeral. Gregory B. Levett & Sons Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

Whitner married Blondine Flowers in 1958. She died in 1992.

After her mother’s death, Carion Lavon Whitner of Atlanta convinced her father to ease up on work and devote more time to his passion for jazz.

“Laughter, joy and music,” is how she summed up his life. “I never met a man who met my father who didn’t tell me ‘I love your father.’”

As a musician, Whitner wasn’t selfish with his time on the stage.

“I learned how to play from him,” local drummer Brett Hollingsworth said.

The two met in 1988 when Hollingsworth was just starting out.

“Dan used to go to all his gigs in a taxi, and I told him I’d take him to his gigs if he’d teach me how to play,” Hollingsworth said.

But there were no formal lessons, Hollingsworth said. Whitner would tell him to watch what he did during a show, then invite him up to take over during a set.

In all their time together, Hollingsworth said he never saw Whitner get angry or raise his voice.

“The most important thing he taught me was how to be a human being,” he said. “He was a very loving person.”

Survivors besides his daughter include sons Tim Tyrone Whitner and Alex Bernard Whitner, both of Atlanta.

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