Mark Whitecage: Free Music with Purpose

John Kelman By

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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.

About Mark Whitecage
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