A Fireside Chat With Mark Whitecage

AAJ Staff By

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When you speak to musicians on the East Coast, Mark Whitecage is mentioned. If you know nothing about Whitecage, know this, if musicians, his peers think of him as the poo, perhaps he is (the how can a billion Chinese people be wrong theory). You would never know this by reading any newspaper, which hardly knows anyone outside of Norah Jones. You would never know this by reading Rolling Stone or VIBE, which hardly knows anyone outside of Norah Jones. You would never know this by reading a jazz periodical, which hardly knows anyone outside of Norah Jones. You would know if you listened. Listen to Research on the Edge (CIMP) or Consensual Tension (CIMP). Listen to The Wish (Music & Arts) or Live in Concert (Cadence). Listen to Live at the Public Theater (Cadence) or Moons of Jupiter (CIMP). And if you can find it, listen to Trillium R (Braxtone House). Then you will know and knowing folks, is half the battle. And as you friendly flight attendant, please make sure your tray is in the upright position and note the seatbelt sign has been turned on, for as always, I bring it to you, unedited and in his own words.

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.

FJ: Influences?

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.

About Mark Whitecage
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