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Mark Whitfield: Quick Whit

By Published: December 1, 2008
"It began about the time that I made the show for BET ("The Jazz Channel Presents Soul Conversation Featuring Mark Whitfield & JK," BET on Jazz, 2000)," he says. "I am real close to George Benson and he had a relationship with The Ibanez Guitar Company from Japan. He's been playing nothing but the guitars that they make for him for, I don't know, 30 years now. About a year or so before I was making the DVD, my favorite guitar (a Gibson L5), which was natural blonde-colored wood and custom-made for me, had been destroyed in a freak accident back stage at Jazz Festival in Germany. It was damaged beyond repair.

So Gibson sent me a few guitars to try and tide me over while they tried to do something with it. And one of them was that red guitar. I wasn't really crazy about the color. I thought it was a little too flashy. But it felt great and it sounded good. Still I wasn't convinced I was going to use it. I happened to turn on the TV and George Benson was playing on "The Jay Leno Show" that night. And he was playing a bright, fire-engine red guitar. And I said, 'if George can do it, it must be all right'"

Then Whitfield met Stephen Marchione. "He is just a modern day Stradivarius when it comes to guitars. He built the guitar for me that I am currently playing. He said, 'I am making you a guitar. It's a one-of-a-kind.' He wanted to make it a very traditional wood color and I said, 'I understand what you're saying, but you need to trust me on this one. Especially with this guitar, in terms of the craftsmanship. It needs to stand out in a crowd. Paint it fire-engine red.' And he nearly hit the roof. I mean I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He did not take to it easily."

But the guitar was made to his direction in 1998. "He's probably sold fifty of them since that time ... and he has never stopped thanking me for insisting that he paint it red. And now he sends all his guitar cases out bright red. Though I think I'm the only one who actually plays the bright red one."

In addition to Whitfield's musical family, he also speaks lovingly of his own family, especially sons Mark Jr., 18, and Davis, 15. He gives credit to his brother and sister for first introducing him to the guitar and to his parents for fostering a love for music.

All three of his brothers did military service in Vietnam War. "My middle brother was a big blues fan and he loved guitar, although he didn't play music at all. For his homecoming present, my sister bought him a guitar. I was about seven years old and he gave it to me. He said 'little brother, this is a guitar and this is a blues record.' It was The Blues Anthologies (Lightnin' Hopkins, Mastercuts Lifestyle, 2005). This album is the blues and this is how a guitar is supposed to sound.' Of course, he was my big brother and I looked up to him. So I started trying to play the guitar like what I heard on the record."

Whitfield shrugs off being described as a child prodigy.

"I think, given the history of music, that's a very relative term. I think if we are to believe what we've read about Mozart, he was a child prodigy. Composing symphonies at four and things like that. Although I had a natural affinity for music, both classical and jazz, I didn't decide to get serious or to pursue music as a career until I was almost 15. I was in high school so I had about one year left of high school to prepare myself for the competition that awarded me the scholarship to allow me to go to Berklee in Boston and pursue music. By today's standards, I think I was kind of a late bloomer."

So with Whitfield's gift for music and parents who were big supporters of the arts, it would seem an obvious choice for him to become a professional musician. "To hear my parents tell it now, it was all their idea," he says with a laugh. "Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that simple. My parents were incredibly supportive of my interest in the arts because they believe—and they were right—that exposure to the arts and education in the arts and all of that leads to a well-rounded person in general."

Growing up on Long Island, his parents took Whitfield and his siblings to many live jazz concerts. "I saw Duke Ellington and his orchestra. I saw Ella Fitzgerald. I saw Count Basie and his band, as well as Billy Eckstine. I got to see a lot of live jazz, which is the only way to really experience jazz, I believe. My parents were always very supportive. They just assumed that I would follow the path of my siblings into some sort of professional career. I had two brothers that were lawyers. My sister was a stockbroker. I had sort of set my sights on becoming a doctor. Around the same time I received a scholarship to go to Berklee up in Boston, I received a scholarship to go to Georgetown to enroll as a pre-med student. And that's when the trouble began."

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