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Mark Whitfield: Quick Whit

By Published: December 1, 2008
"When I find myself playing in a setting that would fall into the category of popular music, I don't like to take the forefront. I like that music to be centered around the song or on the singer. And so I don't get to feature myself very much. So because of my own personal concept of how that music should sound, I've kind of shied away from doing it. It's not really what I've heard myself doing in my own imagination's ear."

While Whitfield appreciates and enjoys the advances in music technology that have allowed him and others to be more in control of their own music, he says it can also be a negative. "The downside of that is that everyone can make a record. The idea of someone being good enough to make it in the business is sort of gone. I don't mean that in a negative way. But if you think about it, fifteen years ago when you went to the record store, especially the jazz section, and you looked in the bin you saw a new artist, a new saxophonist like Joshua Redman, he's got a record out. But you were pretty sure, if he's got a record deal, he's got to be good. Because you had to be good enough to earn the right to do that. Nowadays, that's gone. Now the artist has to rise to the challenge of bringing his music to the audience. That takes some creativity. Record companies had paid for us to do that. Now the financing has to come from other sources.

"The upside is that as artists we have full creative control. Now I can make a record according to my vision and I finally feel that I am mature enough as a musician to have a vision that's worth realizing. As a youngster you just want to play, you have all these ideas, but sometimes it can be really disjointed. Now I feel like I know enough about music and have gained enough experience to have viable ideas when it comes to making records."

Whitfield jokes about "modern" technology when he was starting out. "I remember when we first would try to record our own music, you would do it with two tape recorders. You recorded and then you recorded that one into the other tape recorder and you kept doing it back and forth. You kept doing it until you finally got all of the parts down. You'd hear cars drive by, everything.

"Now kids can open up their Mac computers and make records in their own bedroom. It's mind-blowing to see what kids can do today with the advent of technology," he says. "They have so much more information that is accessible to them than I did when I was their age. When I was learning to play, I had records and a record player. I had to take the needle and put my hand and back it up. If I wanted to learn a song, I had to listen to it over and over and over. They have sheet music on the computer and they have computer programming, MP3 players and they have access to music. When I got to Berklee I think I had a collection of maybe 25 albums. When my eldest son went to Berklee, he had a collection of probably 4,000 albums programmed on his iTunes."

Still, Whitfield greatly appreciates and supports young musicians and the way the advances in technology support their craft. "There is so much more that is accessible to them and for someone who is focused and interested and who is willing to make good use of it, you can really get a great head start. That's what I've seen now with a lot with my kids and their friends. I am very proud of them. This generation of young musicians is very accomplished and very enthusiastic. They have a lot of great things to add to the musical landscape. For me, it is very inspiring."

Whitfield's sons are also into music. He says he was careful not to push them that way, but allow them to come into their own and choose their own path. He says that attitude stems from his own upbringing.

As the youngest in the family, Whitfield feels that his parents "had parenting down to a science" by the time he came along. "They were very laid back. They were very settled into who they were. They were very supportive of me in my quest to find the kind of person that I wanted to be. And rather than try and steer me in one direction or the next, they just let me follow different paths until I found one that stuck for me. I was into martial arts for a while. I was into sports for a while, but I was always into music, throughout everything. And they encouraged that, much to their chagrin when they found out I was going to do music instead of going into medicine. Even that eventually paid off. It worked out for me.

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