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Mark Whitfield: Quick Whit

By Published: December 1, 2008
Explains Whitfield, "At that time I had already made up my mind. The wheels had been set in motion because two years prior I had attended a scientist internship at Georgetown for the summer. That was where the work I did then sort of earned me a scholarship. But in the two years to come I had found my love for music and decided that's what I wanted to do, or at least try. I was finally able to convince my folks that since I was graduating early from high school, that if I went to Berklee and gave it a shot, and realized just by the local competition, if I didn't think I had a shot to make it in music, then it wasn't going to be too late to then turn around and go back and study something else. We agreed. But I knew once I got there that there was no turning back for me.

"I made the right choice for me and I am grateful that they came around and supported me in that decision. Had they not supported me, I am not sure that I would have had the wherewithal to make it happen for myself."

Whitfield realized he could make a living doing what he loved, but was still humble about his future. He describes a high school experience that kept his visions from being too grandiose. At age 16, his high school's orchestra took a trip to Disneyland. Whitfield had been there many times so instead he wandered off by himself and came across a jazz club.

"I walked in because I heard someone playing guitar. On the stage, sitting by himself in a chair was Joe Pass. It had to be about three o'clock in the afternoon. Joe Pass is one of the four or five greatest guitar players of all time. And he is at Disneyland at around 60 playing a gig, playing solo guitar for two hours for a bunch of tourists and little kids. I just sat there and listened to him play for a couple of hours. Of course I was just dreaming that one day I'd be able to play like him. So that's where reality sets in ... one of the four or five greatest guitar players, and certainly one of the greatest musicians of all time, playing a gig at Disneyland. He's not playing the Hollywood Bowl. He's in Tea Cup Land. So reality says, 'Hey, you've got a long way to go before you can even be worthy to carry his guitar case. And this is what he's doing.'"

So Whitfield envisioned a modest life. "I was very fortunate that about the time I was getting out of school, and ready to become a professional musician, that Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard had started to turn the music world, the music industry, over on its ears. They had laid some great in-roads into pop culture, by playing classical music and jazz. And not only being great at it, but by being very sincere about it.

"I was able, along with some guys who were my age—Roy Hargrove, Chris (Christian) McBride, Nicholas Payton, guys like that—we were all able to ride that wave into getting record deals and having some press attention. That's what facilitated a career that I never expected. And in a lot of ways, was not prepared for. When I say that I mean that the music we put out, I was very proud of, and still am very proud of, the record that I made and the music that I played. But it was never designed to be played for the masses.

"Not that I didn't want everyone to love my music, its just that I knew that this kind of music goes out to a smaller audience, in general. Unless I was going to change my music stylistically and find a way to hold on to this mass audience, I knew sooner or later it was going to settle into something a little more realistic. Once the press hype stopped and all of that kind of died down, those of us who were playing real jazz music were going to be playing for real jazz listeners—just a much smaller group. Fortunately for all of us, real jazz listeners are very loyal and I am very thankful to have had so many great fans and supporters over the years."

Yet, the songs on his latest CD, with sharp solos and vocals, could certainly appeal to an audience larger than just jazz fans. But has he tried to stay away from Top 40 air play?

"It's easy to say that I've tried to stay away from it because I am not a singer," says Whitfield. "If I liked the sound of my own voice and had tried to be a singer, I may have taken a different path of music. Because I've always just played the guitar, I've always been drawn to musical styles where I can express myself with the instrument. There are not a whole lot of runs for a musician to take the lead in popular music, especially the kind of popular music that I like. Now, Carlos Santana is certainly the exception. Santana kind of exists in the craft by himself as a guy whose instrumentals have always been in the Top 40. I think that's just because of his unique approach to playing music.

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