A Fireside Chat With Mark Whitecage
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Mark Whitecage: Well, my father was a pianist and he wanted his own band. So my older brother played trumpet and my sister sang, she came next and then I came after that. I wanted a trombone, but I couldn't reach what first position is and so they got me a little curved soprano sax and that got me started. I was six at that time. I couldn't reach anything else. I remember when I went into the Army when I was eighteen, I tried to give it up. I tried to stop playing. I remember writing my father a letter, I was up in Seattle, and I wrote him a letter to send me my tenor because I couldn't deal without it. It was the only time in my life, between the years eighteen and nineteen, I spent a year without it, but after that, I've always played. I use it for my salvation. It keeps me honest. There is no way you can fake it. The kind of music we're making is very honest stuff. There is no pretense to it, so as long as I play everyday, I am being true to everything that I believe in. Music is therapy too. I couldn't live without it. Ellington said, 'Music was my mistress.' It is my life.
MW: Well, I started off with Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker. This was in the Fifties. I was in high school. We always had, I remember, we had a record at home called Little Jazz. I was two or three and I think I recognized that record. It was Roy Eldridge. They used to call him Little Jazz. I knew I was little and I thought that that was cool. That probably got me listening to those guys, Ben Webster and Lester Young and all that. It was actually the golden age of what I consider the best time there was in jazz. There was so much incredible stuff happening that I used to hitchhike from Litchfield, Connecticut to the town Torrington, which had the only record shop. They had Jazz at the Philharmonic and the Kenton records. Stan Getz was going to Sweden and making those things with Lars Gullin (Stockhome Sessions '58) and all that stuff. That was right in the middle of all that stuff when I was in high school.
FJ: That flies in the face of critical convention, most of whom would cite Ornette as your primary influence.
MW: Well, I've gone all ways. I've learned everything I could. At one time, I was a very good lead alto player in a big band. I read the big band charts. We worked around Connecticut and New Hampshire and stuff doing the dances and things like that. I played both tenor and alto in the bands and I learned, I'm a very good reader, so I learned the basic working man. I didn't go to school and learn all the stuff that they guys are doing at Berklee now and study and analyze everything. I learned everything by doing it. I think I probably played everything but klezmer. I haven't got klezmer yet, but I added Latin jazz when I played with Patato a few years ago. In fact, we had them together with our band and it was incredible. But I play every kind of music there is, Fred.
FJ: Currently, what are your primary instruments?
MW: My main kit right now is the clarinet, soprano, and alto. I passed my alto clarinet. I can do that. I still play alto clarinet once in a while, but I'm not about it. I use a lot of pedals, a lot of electronics, especially with my clarinet. That is basically my kit right now.
FJ: Let's touch on two of your projects, Liquid Time and the Glass House Ensemble.
MW: Well, Liquid Time, I wrote all the parts, all the pieces, except on that record that Michael J. Stevens did. It was my writing, my conception, the whole thing. With Glass House, I built sculptures. I had these glass rods, which gave the group its name. You dip your fingers in water and then you stroke the rods and they are tuned impeccably. They play symphonies on them and stuff. They make this beautiful, steel sound and we use that, the one built, which was not nearly as refined as the French one and some other things that I built, steel, bolt stock, and wooden, anything that I could do to make sounds for a long time. While my kids were growing up, I was exploring that.
FJ: Having played on Anthony Braxton's mammoth opera, Trillium R, shed some light on that experience.
MW: Oh, it was fantastic. In fact, I was negotiating, I just found out that Bob Rusch had the Trillium up there and I couldn't get it from Anthony's company. I'm trying to get it because Rozanne did all the pictures for it and I haven't heard it yet, but it was a fantastic experience, rehearsing and playing. We had stage parts and we were running around the stage in robes and stuff. You would count about two hundred and fifty-six measures a rest and then he would have two or three notes for you to come in right with some oboe player down in the pit or something like that. It was very intense, the rehearsal and the playing. I learned quite a deal. I learned to carry a little flashlight from Steve Swell (laughing). The lights would go out and we would be in the back and we would come up on our cue and we couldn't see what we were doing. He always had a little flashlight and he reached in his pocket and pulled out this little thing. So I learned to carry one of those. I learned all sorts of things. They were beautiful musicians. Joseph Celli, I remember, I reunited with him. We had a really good time together. He's an oboe player from up in Connecticut.
FJ: How substantial has your association with the Improvisers Collective been?
MW: Well, I met Sabir during that time. Yeah, it was good. I did that because I wanted to meet more musicians. I thought I was getting too insulated. I was just playing my own thing, so I joined the collective and I met all the people that were playing. I got a chance to try out. We did a bunch of concerts. I think one session I did I had three bass players, I used one time with Lou, Lou Grassi was a part of it. Yeah, it was a good learning experience. It was nice.
FJ: Since its inception, you have recorded prolifically for Bob Rusch's CIMP label, something you haven't been doing much of late.
MW: He won't record what I want to record. He just wants to record what he wants to record and so that is what he is doing. I have had discussions with him and he is just not interested in what I am doing now.
FJ: What are you doing now?
MW: A lot of electronics. I have this thing called a Voice Prism that vocalists use to create harmonies and studios use it as a high end piece of gear, plus a lot of guitar pedals and loops and things like that. I found that rather than just play the sax, I've been doing that since the Sixties and it hasn't changed all that much. So I am more interested in doing what I am doing now. I have a brand new release called Ducks on Acid, which has just gone into production now and I will be taking some ads out and I will send you it. It is what I call my virtual combo. I play all the parts on it in real time and I got a much better recording. I did that a couple of years ago with the Turning Point record, but I took that off my label because the recording wasn't that good. But this one is much better. I am getting better all the time with this. That is my passion at the moment, is to do these electronic things.
FJ: The trapping of electronics is losing the authenticity of your playing.
MW: I have to, when I first started, I had kind of a mantra, less is more, less is more. I'm already pretty good just playing acoustic with my alto. I can pretty much do a solo concert with it. So all you have to do is you add a little echo or I have a machine that will play an octave below what I am doing, so I just have to stay the line and run that octave below thing through a loop and it comes back an octave below and then I am gone. I am doing something else with the alto and I can change that at will and have four octaves above me and stuff like that. You are doing the same things that you normally would do, but your pallet is much bigger, the sounds you get. And also, when I do transfer that back to just playing alto with another type of group with no pedals, I start making the same sounds. It has been happening the last couple of years. I am making them without the pedals. Whatever you listen to, you grow into it. It is just something I do.
FJ: Artistic individuality is not applauded in today's monkey see, monkey do society.
MW: Oh, yeah, I am not discouraged. I can play all that other stuff. If somebody wanted me to do a straight-ahead bop record, I could do it. But what for? It really doesn't make any sense to me to, to me it is not improvising anymore if you are playing changes. If you are playing a standard and you are just playing the changes on a standard, you are not improvising, if you have done it two hundred times before. How long can it be improvising? What we are doing when I played with Anthony is we were taking the standards and playing them one time to the changes and then we loosened the changes and loosened the changes until we were playing the tune and not the changes and then never go back and go into something else. The whole time he was doing the piano, that is what we were doing and that is basically what I do with my trio with the electronic pedals and everything else we do in there.
FJ: And the future?
MW: I've got two records. One is called No Respect. That's the group with Dominic Duval and Jay Rosen. That's my trio. I get so much input from those guys that I stopped calling it Mark Whitecage Trio and we turned the name into No Respect. And the before mentioned Ducks on Acid, my virtual combo. Those are the two new records we have coming out. Both are coming out on my own Acoustics. I make them myself. I do the labels and I burn them on a CD-R here. It is what I've been doing today. It's better than playing bop. I would rather do that than put on a tuxedo. It is a day gig. We've all got day gigs. The new music scene, there is not too many people making money playing creative music, not in this country. Wynton has got them all wearing tuxedos and playing Dixieland and stuff. I would rather do this than do something else. It's cool. I have control and when I get tired of doing it, I've already taken a couple of records out. I call them extremely limited editions, so if you see one, you should grab it because it might not be there in a few months. Sometimes I get bored with the stuff or I don't want to make them anymore and I just take them out. So they will be around for a little while and then they will be underground. It's a good business when I am touring. When I am going to Europe, I can carry these things and I don't put them in a jewel case. I can carry fifty CDs in the space of twenty in jewel cases. Traveling now is no picnic. It's no fun anymore.
FJ: Is the reception in Europe warmer than the States?
MW: Oh, yeah. I started going there in 1972 with Gunter Hampel and I have gone almost every spring and every fall. We did longer tours, maybe five or six weeks and I did that until about '82, for about ten years and so I met a lot of people and I know all the clubs. We probably played every venue in Europe. When we first started in '72, Gunter was very hot and we were playing the festivals too. It was very nice. I know all the people over there and they know me. In New York, I can't afford to play in New York. I have been holding the Knitting Factory up. When I play there, I pay the guys and whatever the band is, I pay the guys a certain minimum and I never make it back. And guys like me have been supporting that place and now it is almost like a rock club. There is Tonic and a few other things, but New York is too expensive to play. It is like you have to pay to play. We're contemplating a move to Portland, Oregon. I might go out there. You are out there. That's right. I went out there this summer and people were really nice and they had really nice musicians. It was much laid back.
FJ: I trust whatever you decide, you will do it your way.
MW: (Laughing) I certainly will.
Photo Credit: Rozanne Levine