Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose


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...if you're in the moment, then you're playing with the truth. If you're thinking about the music then you're not really playing; if you're seeing it, you're not really playing it.
—Mark Whitecage
Now in his mid-sixties, saxophonist/clarinetist Mark Whitecage has seen jazz through almost all its periods, most noticeably from being the popular music of the day to its current regrettable state as a niche style. And with an all-encompassing interest, he has played it all. Starting at an early age he played in his father’s various bands. “My first instrument,” says Whitecage, “was a curved soprano; I was six years old and I couldn’t fit anything else. I wanted to be a trombone player but I couldn’t reach more than first position, so my father got me this tiny little curved soprano and it fit me like a tenor.”

Aside from playing in his father’s polka band, where he developed his reading skills, Whitecage also played a lot of swing music. “I was in another band,” explains Whitecage, “where we played Ray Anthony and Stan Kenton charts; Kenton was doing a lot of hip stuff. This was jazz, but it was being played , it was a different environment, it was popular music at the same time.”

Whitecage also remembers when live music was the entertainment in the clubs. “There were no jukeboxes in those days, in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Whitecage, “there wasn’t canned music in every club, and so in a little town like Torrington, Connecticut, which I think had about forty-thousand people, there were eight or ten clubs, all needing entertainment. So you could work as much as you wanted. Scale was eight bucks a day, but hey; you could buy a suit for twenty dollars. You could earn a living doing that.”

A Chance Meeting

Continuing on with bands of the day, Whitecage was influenced by Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, as well as by west coast cool artists including Lee Konitz. Then, while he was stationed with the army in El Paso, he had a chance meeting that changed the way he looked at music from that time forward. “It was about 1958,” Whitecage says, “and a jazz festival came to town. Chico Hamilton came and he brought Eric Dolphy with him. I’d never heard of him, never saw him or heard anything about him before I saw him, and my jaw just dropped, it was a revelation. He was playing clarinet, alto saxophone and flute.

“At the time,” Whitecage continues, “we had a coffee shop in town, it was the only integrated place in El Paso, and that’s where we all got together. We brought all these guys that were playing at the festival down to this coffee shop and we jammed all night. Chico tripped over Eric’s clarinet on the way up to the stand, and bent a key on it. It was a Saturday and there were no shops open, so Eric and I spent time in the back room of the coffee shop working on his horn trying to find parts for it. We spent two days doing that, just talking and playing; he was drinking tea and honey—gallons of tea. He wouldn’t play in the shop until the last day, and then he insisted I come up and play with him, and he sat down and played piano. It was like Cecil Taylor, really aggressive, and I thought, ‘God, what did I do, he’s mad at me!’ That was my time playing with Eric.”

As for the effect that Dolphy had on Whitecage, it extended beyond mere instrumental prowess. “He got me studying Zen,” explains Whitecage, “looking at the foods I was eating, and he got me working on my instrument. By that time I knew how to play all the horns; I was in the army band so I could check out anything I wanted, and I had 24 hours a day just to spend on music in those days, it was my college. I had plenty of chops but I didn’t know what to play. He taught me that I had to develop as a person, find out who I was, and clean up. So he got me digging to find out who I was and find my own sound.

“I could copy anyone I wanted,” Whitecage continues. “When I started playing I had a teacher up in Torrington; when I was 16 I was playing tenor. I was playing all the clubs around town and he would just yell out, ‘Lester Young’ and I would play Lester Young, or ‘Coleman Hawkins’ and I’d do that. I could play anybody’s style but I didn’t know who I was. What Eric did was he pointed me towards finding myself.”

Another Momentous Event

The ‘60s saw Whitecage continue playing and developing his voice, but it was another momentous event that would cause him to make a change that, again, redirected his life. “I was setting up this little piano tuning business in Waterbury, Connecticut,” he says, “and the only other guy into the music was Mario Pavone, who was just getting started, so we’d get together and play. Then we started going to New York. I went to New York for John Coltrane’s funeral, and I stayed at an apartment down on Houston Street, and just decided to stay. I wasn’t doing too much musically when Coltrane died, and I figured if he wasn’t here anymore then I’d better start getting back to work. We had the lofts and they were cheap; we were putting on our own concerts and that worked pretty well for a while; then the real estate got too high and we got priced out.”

Gunter Hampel

In the early ‘70s Whitecage began an association with multi-instrumentalist Gunter Hampel that lasted for more than ten years and resulted in numerous recordings. “Gunter was playing all these nice European festivals,“ Whitecage explains, “and these festivals were packed with people, making a lot of noise. When you played the festivals it was almost like you were pantomiming the music rather than making it, because you really couldn’t hear anything. But it was very exciting; Gunter gave me a little Citroen car, and [reedman] Perry Robinson and I and a young violinist just drove all over springtime Germany and played every night. It was an education for me, the first time I had the chance just to play; Gunter was basically interested in the alto clarinet, so I learned to play that horn as well.”

Sound Sculptures

With a career that was becoming more established through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, one of the more notable associations Mark had was with Bernard and Francois Baschet, who gained a name for themselves by creating sound sculptures, literal sculptures that could reproduce unusual musical sounds. “I met Bernard,” says Whitecage, “and he had these fantastic large pieces of steel that he shaped into things that looked like flower petals. And he’d attach these to glass rods; you’d dip your fingers in water and rub these rods, get them vibrating, and you’d make music. It sounded like about 16 French Horns at the same time. There are a few records out with his stuff, mostly in France.

“There was a loft in downtown New York,” continues Whitecage, “and we had permission from the Baschets to use them; we were doing a dance piece, and we used a couple of these sculptures in the dance, which we took to Greece. I played in the Acropolis with these sculptures, it was a beautiful experience. The Baschets had these things impeccably tuned and they could play classical music on them; what we liked to do was detune them so that they’d vibrate against each other; they didn’t like us doing that with their instruments so I said, ‘I’ll make my own.’

"So I did, I made a crystal that was very out of tune because I didn’t have the machinery to cut the metal. The way I cut my steel, they didn’t pick up all the vibrations equally, so some notes would be really loud and others really soft, and they would have their own patterns, which I liked; it was different. So we explored that; I spent a few years doing that, I even dragged them down to the old Knitting Factory one time.

“I still play one of them with [clarinetist and partner] Rozanne Levine’s band, Chakra Tuning,” concludes Whitecage, “I use one of the sculptures I’ve saved. The rest of them, they’re just too much to carry. I have one recording that I never released, with Gerry Hemingway playing my sculptures and drums, Mario Pavone and Joe Fonda on bass, and Rozanne playing the sculptures and clarinet.”

Focusing on a Solo Career

By the early ‘90s Mark was leading his own groups, including Liquid Time, whose self-titled release garnered positive critical attention, and featured a young Dave Douglas on trumpet. Unfortunately, work for the quintet was hard to find, so Whitecage began a trio that featured bassist Dominic Duval and percussionist Jay Rosen. The trio, ultimately named No Respect, continues to this day. “Dominic has an absolutely vast knowledge of music,” says Whitecage, “he knows almost anything you’d want to play. We don’t need to rehearse, although we spent a year rehearsing in the early days before it dawned on us that we didn’t need to.”

Free Music With Purpose

Emerging as a leader, Whitecage began to develop an approach that combined free playing with sketches, basic roadmaps to give his groups jumping off points for extended improvisations that still managed to stay somehow true to the source material. “Everything is there but the return,” explains Whitecage. “I’ll write the beginning. For example, I have a piece called ‘End Piece,’ and all I did was write the beginning, you never go back to it. When I was playing with Anthony Braxton that’s what we’d do when we’d play standards and he was playing piano. We’d take any standard and play it but never go back to the head, we’d do everything we could with the tune and then start another tune and do the same thing.”

The majority of Whitecage’s ensembles avoid the use of chordal instruments. “The thing I don’t want to play is the chords,” Whitecage says, “because one chord leads to another chord and then you play it again and it leads to the same chord. But I can play the same tune six days in a row and be totally different each time I play it, because I’m building my chords not from the pattern, more from the melody. I can always hear the melody when I am playing, no matter what I’m playing. And Dominic [Duval] does too, it’s almost like telepathy, we could be away from the melody for eighteen or twenty bars and all of a sudden we’re together again, at a different place in the head.

And all this stuff happens naturally. If I’m playing ‘Dolphin Dance’ I’m playing it, I never leave the tune and play something else; otherwise I wouldn’t call it ‘Dolphin Dance.’ We know where the tune is all the time. A lot of this new music is people just fishing, they go on fishing expeditions and hope something will turn up. I see a lot of guys that are noodling around for twenty minutes and then they get very excited because something happens. The trick is to start off with something happening, and that’s what we try to do.”

Electronics and Ducks on Acid

With an interest in electronics that dates back to the ‘60s Whitecage has, in recent years, been spending more time creating a rig that allows him to create a virtual one-man orchestra. The first CD to really explore this avenue is ‘03’s Ducks on Acid , where Whitecage utilizes a complicated and ever-changing series of effects to create loops and build harmonies. The result is strange and unusual. “You can set up certain rhythms with the echoes,” explains Whitecage, “and let that be your rhythm section. I use guitar pedals because you can do everything with your feet, leaving your hands free for your horn; I’ve always been interested in pitch shifters, playing more than one note at a time has always fascinated me.

"I grew up in a house full of pianos and I ended up playing the sax—I’ve got one note where I’ve got to do everything. So having a pitch shifter to create harmonies, that is very cool. Also, I use a seven-minute looping device, so you can put something in—you can have a riff, you can have a whole tune, or you can make a bass line if you want, and you put it in this loop and it just keeps playing, so then you can go on to doing other things. I have two of these looping devices and another one that’s just a delay. You learn by playing—I played them every day for a couple of years and you learn, by playing them, just how to control them the same way you learn how to control anything else.

“I played every day,” continues Whitecage, “I’d just sit down and take an hour and explore it, and Ducks on Acid is the culling out of about a year's worth of explorations. Nothing was written down for it. I tried to do that a few times, I tried some of my compositions, but it never worked, so it was all just improvised. But I still think of it as composing; I don’t think of myself as an improviser, especially when I’m doing something with the electronics. You know, you’re making a bass line and then you’re putting something on top of the bass line, it’s the same thing as if you’re using a pen and paper except you’re doing it in real time and you’re hearing it. And there’s no going back. Sometimes it gets so thick you go crazy, but you have to be very careful, you have to have your escape route planned. There’s one button on the rig that will make everything fade out, so if I get into too much trouble I know I can hit that button, make everything fade out and then it’s just me and my horn.

“I have the whole system feeding back to itself,” Whitecage concludes, “and I have learned how to control it but I haven’t recorded it as well as I need to. But the rig keeps changing; it’s too easy the way it is now, so I have to find something to throw in there to shake things up.”

Developing a Free Approach

While Whitecage is characterized as a free player, the natural evolution requires a combination of both discipline and an attitude towards breaking free of constraints. “If you spend too much time with scales and chords,” explains Whitecage, “you get this emotional investment in them. I’ve met a lot of piano players who have spent so much time working out their inversions and things that they are emotionally attached to these chords and they can’t play free, can’t break away from it. I’ve always guarded against being over-developed in any one area of the things I do. Still, I don’t throw anything away. I might go back and play ‘Round Midnight,’ some old standard, but it has to be fresh and new to me; once I learn how to do something I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Whitecage sees the road to freedom as being an educational process. “The first thing,” Whitecage explains, “is if you just play free your fingers are going to go into natural places, and you’ll play the same thing everyday. One thing I used to do, for example, was read. I had a flute at one time, when my kids were very young, and a clarinet book and I would practice the clarinet book on the flute. I’d play something new everyday; just read something; anything that I hadn’t played before. Make my fingers do different things, make my hands move in different ways. Do all the exercises, all the scales. You hear the younger players all hung up on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and Patterns , you can almost tell their age by what they’re playing, because they’ve spent too much time on the one book. My idea is just to study any piece of music and read, even if it’s a harp piece. I still do that.”

“But you have to be loose with things,” he declares, “or else it wouldn’t become your structure; if you tighten it down then it becomes something that’s not you anymore. If it’s loose, if you’re in the moment, then you’re playing with the truth, you’re playing what’s really happening. If you’re thinking about the music then you’re not really playing. If you’re seeing it, you’re not really playing it. There’s musician’s music and composer’s music. I saw some of Steve Reich’s charts once and there’s a clarinet part that is a repeated pattern thousands of times over. The horn player doesn’t even get to participate in the music, although maybe later he can hear it back; but he’s so busy doing it that he’s not in the moment any more; I’m just the opposite of that, if that makes any sense.”

Acoustics and the Current Climate

With the exception of the 2003 Drimala release Rules of Engagement, Vol. 1 , a duo record with Duvall, all of Whitecage’s recent output has been released on his own label, Acoustics, which is a bit of a cottage industry. Rather than press large numbers of CDs, he produces them himself out of his home, creating limited edition releases where supply meets demand. With the exception of Ducks on Acid , the recordings have all been from live performances. He does, however, have plans for a new studio recording with a new band. Jay Rosen and Dominic Duval will be part of the effort, but there are also parts for cello and trumpet. Whether it sees release on Acoustics or elsewhere has yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Whitecage continues to pursue his muse, although he sees recent developments in American politics as adversely affecting the ability for artists to get out and promote their music. “For a long time I was doing most of my work in Europe,” says Whitecage, “until Bush made us hated all over the world. It’s hard now to be an ambassador and go over to Europe, to France and Germany, where I’ve traditionally played. They can’t get people to come to our concerts anymore. People won’t come for American artists. Being an American is a liability; it used to be, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that everybody wanted American jazz musicians, and so it was a very positive thing to be an American, but not now. And Bush is keeping a lot of people from coming over here, because they have so much trouble with their visas. There are a lot of musicians that can’t get into the country to play with us; the whole world has changed.

“Europe is still a bastion for creative music,” he emphasizes. “I’m going over with The Nu Band (Roy Campbell Jr., Joe Fonda, Lou Grassi and myself) in January, 2005, but it hasn’t been easy for the trio. I had to stop doing it, I lost money on the last trip, and I couldn’t afford to lose anymore, so we’ve done other things. We’re working on it, but it makes me angry.”

Still Evolving

But despite the hurdles that have been placed in the way due to the current political climate, and the marginalization of jazz from being a popular music to a niche market, Whitecage is positive about the future. He is busy writing and painting, and is looking into releasing DVDs where he can better integrate both art forms. He is involved in numerous projects including Rozanne Levine’s New Reed Quartet, his own new group, the experimental Hudson Bay Explorer’s Club and, of course, the trio with Duval and Rosen. With an insatiable hunger for artistic development, there is clearly a lot more to be heard from Mark Whitecage.

Visit Mark Whitecage on the web.

Photo Credits
Rozanne Levine

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