Mark Whitfield: Quick Whit

Trish Richardson BY

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I was very fortunate that about the time I was getting out of school, and ready to become a professional musician, that Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard had started to turn the music world, the music industry, over on its ears.
Panther [Pan-ther]

College Dictionary:

noun - Four-legged feline, usually found in largely forested areas.

Sports Dictionary:

proper noun - Two-legged player, usually found in the Carolina areas.

Whitfield Dictionary:

1. Collective noun - Group of players (namely Mark Whitfield, Cy Smith, Byron Moore, Jason Murden, Donald Edwards and Antoine Drye), usually found in jazzy areas.
2. State of being - The experience of being independent.

see also: Alternative Soul.

Guitarist Mark Whitfield speaks about "After the Mix," from his album Mark Whitfield featuring Panther (Dirty Soap, 2005), intoning that "although the album seems like a diverse collection of musical styles, it is really just my collective vision of the things that I appreciate about music. It's about the group ... It's about the experience of being independent.

"That's what Dirty Soap (Dirty Soap Entertainment, their production company formed by Drye, Edwards, and producer/engineer Ken Shillington) is about, that's what Panther is about. So when people think about Dirty Soap they'll know that music that is unique and individual has a soul. That's what our whole collaboration is about."

"Panther comes from a lot of things," says Whitfield. "It was a crazy project that I put together with some friends, some very close friends of mine. We threw around a lot of names and that one stuck. It didn't really have any special significance at the time, although it did seem like it came to represent something unexpected. I think for most people who are fans of my jazz records and people who followed my career, Panther came as a big surprise. Hopefully, as a pleasant surprise, but certainly came as a big surprise."

One of those surprises includes the song "After the Mix." It was an recorded from an actual conversation that took place while Whitfield was in the dressing room at the Blue Note, talking with drummer Donald Edwards, trumpeter and co-producer Antoine Drye and saxophonist Craig Handy. Also taking part of the conversation was master engineer, Ken Shillington. It was Shillington, in the studio at the time, who decided to record the conversation.

Whitfield recalls, "Later on, when we were in the studio listening to mixes, Ken said, 'Hey, I've got something for you guys to check out.' We thought it would be cool to borrow that device that a lot of modern day R&B hip-hop records seem to have. They have interludes and sections where people talk. I would liken that introduction to Mary J. Blige's first record, What's the 411? (MCA, 1992), where the first song is her answering machine playing back all the messages that people are giving her about her record. It's kind of cool."

Whitfield describes the music on the Panther album as alternative soul. He chose that phrase because "in trying to find labels now to describe music, there are so many new catch phrases that are being created because music is continuous. Thank God, artists are pushing the envelope and traditional breakdowns and genres no longer really exist. Everything is bits and pieces of this style and leading to this style and so on and so forth. And that creates a new blend.

Panther "creates a new style and it keeps music fresh. I think 'alternative soul' is a term meant to describe the sound of classic soul and R&B with the mixture of rock and roll and jazz. All these things can only be described as an alternative to the norm when you think of R&B or soul music. The spirit and the feeling of the music still remains the same—untouched and pure."

Whitfield continues to tour with trumpeter and front man Chris Botti's band that also includes pianist Billy Childs, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Billy Kilson. He considers the band to be part of his family. As such, a friendly sibling rivalry has developed on stage between Whitfield and Botti. "I've always been a bit of a ham and I take great pride standing next to Chris Botti and taking all his attention away," he says with a good-natured laugh.

Not all of the attention gets focused on the band. Whitfield's bright red guitar certainly demands quite a bit of attention on its own. Yet the fire-engine colored instrument seems to be the ideal match for Whitfield, whose nickname is Quik Pik. The name was given to him by "a good friend and a great bassist, David Dyson" because of Whitfield's fast playing. Watching his fingers fly across the strings, it sometimes seems combustion might just be a possibility.

Why red?

"It began about the time that I made the show for BET ("The Jazz Channel Presents Soul Conversation Featuring Mark Whitfield & JK," BET on Jazz, 2000)," he says. "I am real close to George Benson and he had a relationship with The Ibanez Guitar Company from Japan. He's been playing nothing but the guitars that they make for him for, I don't know, 30 years now. About a year or so before I was making the DVD, my favorite guitar (a Gibson L5), which was natural blonde-colored wood and custom-made for me, had been destroyed in a freak accident back stage at Jazz Festival in Germany. It was damaged beyond repair.

So Gibson sent me a few guitars to try and tide me over while they tried to do something with it. And one of them was that red guitar. I wasn't really crazy about the color. I thought it was a little too flashy. But it felt great and it sounded good. Still I wasn't convinced I was going to use it. I happened to turn on the TV and George Benson was playing on "The Jay Leno Show" that night. And he was playing a bright, fire-engine red guitar. And I said, 'if George can do it, it must be all right'"

Then Whitfield met Stephen Marchione. "He is just a modern day Stradivarius when it comes to guitars. He built the guitar for me that I am currently playing. He said, 'I am making you a guitar. It's a one-of-a-kind.' He wanted to make it a very traditional wood color and I said, 'I understand what you're saying, but you need to trust me on this one. Especially with this guitar, in terms of the craftsmanship. It needs to stand out in a crowd. Paint it fire-engine red.' And he nearly hit the roof. I mean I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He did not take to it easily."

But the guitar was made to his direction in 1998. "He's probably sold fifty of them since that time ... and he has never stopped thanking me for insisting that he paint it red. And now he sends all his guitar cases out bright red. Though I think I'm the only one who actually plays the bright red one."

In addition to Whitfield's musical family, he also speaks lovingly of his own family, especially sons Mark Jr., 18, and Davis, 15. He gives credit to his brother and sister for first introducing him to the guitar and to his parents for fostering a love for music.

All three of his brothers did military service in Vietnam War. "My middle brother was a big blues fan and he loved guitar, although he didn't play music at all. For his homecoming present, my sister bought him a guitar. I was about seven years old and he gave it to me. He said 'little brother, this is a guitar and this is a blues record.' It was The Blues Anthologies (Lightnin' Hopkins, Mastercuts Lifestyle, 2005). This album is the blues and this is how a guitar is supposed to sound.' Of course, he was my big brother and I looked up to him. So I started trying to play the guitar like what I heard on the record."

Whitfield shrugs off being described as a child prodigy.

"I think, given the history of music, that's a very relative term. I think if we are to believe what we've read about Mozart, he was a child prodigy. Composing symphonies at four and things like that. Although I had a natural affinity for music, both classical and jazz, I didn't decide to get serious or to pursue music as a career until I was almost 15. I was in high school so I had about one year left of high school to prepare myself for the competition that awarded me the scholarship to allow me to go to Berklee in Boston and pursue music. By today's standards, I think I was kind of a late bloomer."

So with Whitfield's gift for music and parents who were big supporters of the arts, it would seem an obvious choice for him to become a professional musician. "To hear my parents tell it now, it was all their idea," he says with a laugh. "Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that simple. My parents were incredibly supportive of my interest in the arts because they believe—and they were right—that exposure to the arts and education in the arts and all of that leads to a well-rounded person in general."

Growing up on Long Island, his parents took Whitfield and his siblings to many live jazz concerts. "I saw Duke Ellington and his orchestra. I saw Ella Fitzgerald. I saw Count Basie and his band, as well as Billy Eckstine. I got to see a lot of live jazz, which is the only way to really experience jazz, I believe. My parents were always very supportive. They just assumed that I would follow the path of my siblings into some sort of professional career. I had two brothers that were lawyers. My sister was a stockbroker. I had sort of set my sights on becoming a doctor. Around the same time I received a scholarship to go to Berklee up in Boston, I received a scholarship to go to Georgetown to enroll as a pre-med student. And that's when the trouble began."

Explains Whitfield, "At that time I had already made up my mind. The wheels had been set in motion because two years prior I had attended a scientist internship at Georgetown for the summer. That was where the work I did then sort of earned me a scholarship. But in the two years to come I had found my love for music and decided that's what I wanted to do, or at least try. I was finally able to convince my folks that since I was graduating early from high school, that if I went to Berklee and gave it a shot, and realized just by the local competition, if I didn't think I had a shot to make it in music, then it wasn't going to be too late to then turn around and go back and study something else. We agreed. But I knew once I got there that there was no turning back for me.

"I made the right choice for me and I am grateful that they came around and supported me in that decision. Had they not supported me, I am not sure that I would have had the wherewithal to make it happen for myself."

Whitfield realized he could make a living doing what he loved, but was still humble about his future. He describes a high school experience that kept his visions from being too grandiose. At age 16, his high school's orchestra took a trip to Disneyland. Whitfield had been there many times so instead he wandered off by himself and came across a jazz club.

"I walked in because I heard someone playing guitar. On the stage, sitting by himself in a chair was Joe Pass. It had to be about three o'clock in the afternoon. Joe Pass is one of the four or five greatest guitar players of all time. And he is at Disneyland at around 60 playing a gig, playing solo guitar for two hours for a bunch of tourists and little kids. I just sat there and listened to him play for a couple of hours. Of course I was just dreaming that one day I'd be able to play like him. So that's where reality sets in ... one of the four or five greatest guitar players, and certainly one of the greatest musicians of all time, playing a gig at Disneyland. He's not playing the Hollywood Bowl. He's in Tea Cup Land. So reality says, 'Hey, you've got a long way to go before you can even be worthy to carry his guitar case. And this is what he's doing.'"

So Whitfield envisioned a modest life. "I was very fortunate that about the time I was getting out of school, and ready to become a professional musician, that Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard had started to turn the music world, the music industry, over on its ears. They had laid some great in-roads into pop culture, by playing classical music and jazz. And not only being great at it, but by being very sincere about it.

"I was able, along with some guys who were my age—Roy Hargrove, Chris (Christian) McBride, Nicholas Payton, guys like that—we were all able to ride that wave into getting record deals and having some press attention. That's what facilitated a career that I never expected. And in a lot of ways, was not prepared for. When I say that I mean that the music we put out, I was very proud of, and still am very proud of, the record that I made and the music that I played. But it was never designed to be played for the masses.

"Not that I didn't want everyone to love my music, its just that I knew that this kind of music goes out to a smaller audience, in general. Unless I was going to change my music stylistically and find a way to hold on to this mass audience, I knew sooner or later it was going to settle into something a little more realistic. Once the press hype stopped and all of that kind of died down, those of us who were playing real jazz music were going to be playing for real jazz listeners—just a much smaller group. Fortunately for all of us, real jazz listeners are very loyal and I am very thankful to have had so many great fans and supporters over the years."

Yet, the songs on his latest CD, with sharp solos and vocals, could certainly appeal to an audience larger than just jazz fans. But has he tried to stay away from Top 40 air play?

"It's easy to say that I've tried to stay away from it because I am not a singer," says Whitfield. "If I liked the sound of my own voice and had tried to be a singer, I may have taken a different path of music. Because I've always just played the guitar, I've always been drawn to musical styles where I can express myself with the instrument. There are not a whole lot of runs for a musician to take the lead in popular music, especially the kind of popular music that I like. Now, Carlos Santana is certainly the exception. Santana kind of exists in the craft by himself as a guy whose instrumentals have always been in the Top 40. I think that's just because of his unique approach to playing music.

"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.

"It's because they allowed me to be who I wanted to be. So that's something that I wanted to make sure that I somehow carried on with my kids—that they get to be the people that they want to be. I'm convinced that if they choose to continue on with music they are both going to have brilliant careers. I never pushed either one of them into (music)," he says of his sons. "I've been a traveling musician for their entire lives. I was always afraid that they would resent music or resent the thing that took me away from them so often. I was very careful to keep my career, and music in general, in a positive light in their eyes. I just allowed them to involve themselves in music with me. It was an open door policy. If you want to come in here with me while I am playing, come on in. Grab an instrument and join in. If not, do what you want to do. I think that 'no pressure' situation allowed music to become something that we could enjoy together."

Whitfield continues, "I am really proud of both of them because they have really captured the spirit, in my opinion, of what jazz is supposed to be. Jazz is tradition, it's a language, and it's in your spirit that is passed on from generation to generation. With every generation your experiences and your traditions should become richer. Instead with many things, as it is passed on, it somehow gets diluted. And I am very proud of the kids because they've taken what I have had to pass on and they have already taken that and begun to build on it. And they are doing their own thing with it."

Perhaps there may even be some music from Whitfield and Sons.

"Chris' schedule is very hectic, but I am going to try to do something with them," says Whitfield. "I am going to try to find some way for us to at least do one performance every month with us together, as a family. I used to do it because I wanted to get the kids some experience and give them some exposure and it was just so much fun watching them play. But when I played with them a while back, they kicked my butt! I was like, 'Wow! I blinked my eyes and you guys got really good on me!'" he laughs. "It was very inspiring. So now it's taken on a whole new attitude for me. That's something that I didn't expect that I'm really enjoying. I didn't think that far ahead, that at some point my kids would be passing me by. But it's a beautiful thing. That's what you live for."

Though he continues to tour with Botti, Whitfield has other projects planned. He recently recorded an album with co-producer George Fontenette called Songs of Wonder (Mark Whitfield and George Fontenette, 2009), a tribute to Stevie Wonder, to be released in January. Botti and guitarist John Mayer have guests spots on the recording.

He's my absolute favorite songwriter," he says of Wonder. "It took me a long time to work up the courage and the confidence to interpret his music. But I think I've done it justice. I am really proud of the Songs of Wonder album ... I hope that Stevie gets a chance to hear it and it will make me very proud if he endorses it." He also recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of record made for Verve Records in 1998 with Christian McBride and Nicholas Payton, called Finger Painting, a tribute to Herbie Hancock. The group recently played a week at the Jazz Standard in New York and is going to record all new music and release a new album. "It's sort of the first kind of big, real, traditional jazz album that I've done in years," says the guitarist.

"I've been making records and been playing for almost 20 years now. And that's something I never thought I'd be able to say. The last year or two, I've been doing some great playing. My best work is yet to come."

Selected Discography:

Mark Whitfield, Songs of Wonder (Mark Whitfield and George Fontenette, 2009)

Cleo Laine, Jazz (Pid Records, 2008)

Chris Botti, Italia (Columbia, 2007)

Hector Martignon, Refugee (Zoho Music, 2007)

Jimmy Junebug, On My Way Home (Blue Canoe, 2007)

Pat Bianchi, East Coast Roots (Jazzed Media, 2006)

Jason Miles, To Grover With Love (ARTizen Music Group, 2006)

Mark Whitfield, Mark Whitfield Featuring Panther (Dirty Soap Entertainment, 2005)

Various Artists, New York For Lovers (Verve, 2005)

Javon Jackson, Have You Heard? (Palmetto, 2005)

Neal Smith, Some Of My Favorite Songs Are... (NAS, 2005)

Javon Jackson, Easy Does It (Palmetto, 2003)

Various Artists, Jazz Romance: A Night In With Verve (Verve, 2001)

Mark Whitfield, The Jazz Channel Presents Soul Conversation Featuring Mark Whitfield & JK (Image Entertainment, 2000)

Mark Whitfield, Raw (Transparent Music, 2000)

Jimmy Smith, Jimmy Smith's Finest Hour (Verve, 2000)

Mark Whitfield, Soul Conversation Featuring Mark Whitfield & JK (Transparent Music, 2000)

Jimmy Smith, Ultimate Jimmy Smith (Verve, 1999)

Brother Jack McDuff, Bringin' It Home (Concord Jazz, 1999)

Fred Sanders, East of Vilbig (Leaning House Jazz, 1997)

Courtney Pine, Underground (Verve, 1997)

Various Artists, Jazz For Joy: A Verve Christmas Album (Verve, 1996)

Courtney Pine, Modern Day Jazz Stories (Verve, 1996)

D'Angelo, Brown Sugar (Virgin Records, 1995)

Jimmy Smith, Damn! (Verve, 1995)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Bill Morgan
Second Photo: Taku Kauya, courtesy of Mark Whitfield

Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Jim Riesenbach

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