Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose
“ ...if you're in the moment, then you're playing with the truth. If you're thinking about the music then you're not really playing; if you're seeing it, you're not really playing it. ”
Now in his mid-sixties, saxophonist/clarinetist Mark Whitecage has seen jazz through almost all its periods, most noticeably from being the popular music of the day to its current regrettable state as a niche style. And with an all-encompassing interest, he has played it all. Starting at an early age he played in his father’s various bands. “My first instrument,” says Whitecage, “was a curved soprano; I was six years old and I couldn’t fit anything else. I wanted to be a trombone player but I couldn’t reach more than first position, so my father got me this tiny little curved soprano and it fit me like a tenor.”
Aside from playing in his father’s polka band, where he developed his reading skills, Whitecage also played a lot of swing music. “I was in another band,” explains Whitecage, “where we played Ray Anthony and Stan Kenton charts; Kenton was doing a lot of hip stuff. This was jazz, but it was being played , it was a different environment, it was popular music at the same time.”
Whitecage also remembers when live music was the entertainment in the clubs. “There were no jukeboxes in those days, in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Whitecage, “there wasn’t canned music in every club, and so in a little town like Torrington, Connecticut, which I think had about forty-thousand people, there were eight or ten clubs, all needing entertainment. So you could work as much as you wanted. Scale was eight bucks a day, but hey; you could buy a suit for twenty dollars. You could earn a living doing that.”
A Chance Meeting
Continuing on with bands of the day, Whitecage was influenced by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, as well as by west coast cool artists including Lee Konitz. Then, while he was stationed with the army in El Paso, he had a chance meeting that changed the way he looked at music from that time forward. “It was about 1958,” Whitecage says, “and a jazz festival came to town. Chico Hamilton came and he brought Eric Dolphy with him. I’d never heard of him, never saw him or heard anything about him before I saw him, and my jaw just dropped, it was a revelation. He was playing clarinet, alto saxophone and flute.
“At the time,” Whitecage continues, “we had a coffee shop in town, it was the only integrated place in El Paso, and that’s where we all got together. We brought all these guys that were playing at the festival down to this coffee shop and we jammed all night. Chico tripped over Eric’s clarinet on the way up to the stand, and bent a key on it. It was a Saturday and there were no shops open, so Eric and I spent time in the back room of the coffee shop working on his horn trying to find parts for it. We spent two days doing that, just talking and playing; he was drinking tea and honey—gallons of tea. He wouldn’t play in the shop until the last day, and then he insisted I come up and play with him, and he sat down and played piano. It was like Cecil Taylor, really aggressive, and I thought, ‘God, what did I do, he’s mad at me!’ That was my time playing with Eric.”
As for the effect that Dolphy had on Whitecage, it extended beyond mere instrumental prowess. “He got me studying Zen,” explains Whitecage, “looking at the foods I was eating, and he got me working on my instrument. By that time I knew how to play all the horns; I was in the army band so I could check out anything I wanted, and I had 24 hours a day just to spend on music in those days, it was my college. I had plenty of chops but I didn’t know what to play. He taught me that I had to develop as a person, find out who I was, and clean up. So he got me digging to find out who I was and find my own sound.
“I could copy anyone I wanted,” Whitecage continues. “When I started playing I had a teacher up in Torrington; when I was 16 I was playing tenor. I was playing all the clubs around town and he would just yell out, ‘Lester Young’ and I would play Lester Young, or ‘Coleman Hawkins’ and I’d do that. I could play anybody’s style but I didn’t know who I was. What Eric did was he pointed me towards finding myself.”
Another Momentous Event