Born in October of 1966; graduated from Berklee College of Music, 1987; married Jody Davis, 1987; children: Mark Jr., Davis. Addresses: Home--Baton Rouge, LA; Record company--Verve Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
One would think a guitarist who had graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music would be all technique, no emotion. Mark Whitfield dispels that misconception. Although his guitar work is often fast and flashy, his technical proficiency is driven by his interest in structure and melody, and he constantly strives to reduce the number of notes he plays to get at the deeper emotional truth that jazz and blues can reveal.
Whitfield was born in October of 1966 in Long Island, New York. The youngest of five brothers and sisters, his love for jazz and blues music came early. When he was seven, his brother bought him a guitar and a Lightning Hopkins album; he immediately started playing both. At the age of 15, all his siblings were moving into careers as doctors and lawyers and Whitfield himself, had obtained a medical student internship at Georgetown University. While that's an impressive feat for any 15-year-old, it was the scholarship he won to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, which excited Whitfield even more. After his family moved across the country to a suburb of Seattle, Whitfield convinced his parents to let him attend Berklee after graduating from high school early, at the age of 16. It was while studying guitar at Berklee where Whitfield met a young piano and vocal student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, named Jody Davis. The two eventually were married and moved to her home state.
Whitfield's tenure at Berklee was not as smooth as his acceptance to the famed school had been. He wanted to play traditional mainstream jazz, which was not in vogue at Berklee at the time. "I was looking for pure sound, a hollow-body guitar, a small amplifier, no effects," he told Offbeat. He found a core of jazz purists that he could jam with. They included Delfeayo, Wynton, and Branford Marsalis.
In 1987 at the age of 20, Whitfield graduated, married Jody, and the couple moved to a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Whitfield's sister was a stockbroker and got him a position as a stockbroker's assistant. More importantly, his brother-in-law, drummer Tory Davis, got him a job playing with the after-hours house band at the famous Blue Note jazz club in Greenwich Village.
Later that same year, he was playing at the club's 25th anniversary party when legendary jazz guitarist George Benson heard him. Benson was impressed and arranged for him to work with celebrated organist Jack McDuff. McDuff was not especially enamored of Berklee graduates but let him play with his band. It was a learning experience for Whitfield who incorrectly assumed he had a sophisticated theoretical and harmonic background; McDuff soon set him straight. "Stop playing those banjo chords," he told Whitfield, who reacted defensively at first, but then listened and learned how to strip away some of the frilly riffs from his playing.
Around the time he was playing with McDuff, Benson often let Whitfield jam with him on many occasions and put him in touch with his record producer, Tommy LiPuma. In 1989 at the age of 23, Whitfield signed his first recording contract with Warner Brothers. His first album, The Marksman, was a pure jazz guitar album that while critically well received, failed to make little more than a rumble commercially.
In 1990, around the time his debut album came out, Whitfield and Jody discovered they would soon be parents. They decided to move to Jody's home town of Baton Rouge, to raise their child in a more traditional family setting. There, Whitfield met saxophonist Alvin Batiste, head of Southern University's jazz program, who soon became his mentor. He began playing with his old classmate, Delfeayo Marsalis and through him met other members of the New Orleans jazz community. One such player was trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Since then, the two have played on each other's albums and as backing musicians for famed organist Jimmy Smith.
Whitfield's second album, Patrice, was released in 1991. More avant garde than his previous album, it again did well with the critics but not in sales. In 1993, his third album, Mark Whitfield, swung toward the commercial. He had been persuaded to try a more salable approach and the smooth jazz of his Kenny G-style work produced a modest success. His cover of Stevie Wonder's "That Girl" was a minor hit on modern jazz radio and Whitfield toured with a large band for a few months but found he disliked playing pop songs. He returned to playing more traditional jazz with a trio and in turn confounded the audiences, who were expecting his pop material. "The alternative is, you sell out your musical and artistic vision," he told Keith Spera of Offbeat. "If it's not a huge commercial success, then you're a complete failure--you have no recourse. You weren't successfl as a jazz musician, you weren't successful as a pop musician. What do you do now?"
In 1994 Whitfield moved to the Verve record label and returned to his jazz and blues interests with True Blue, an album that featured seven original compositions and six jazz classics. The combination garnered both critical praise and impressive sales. "The maturation process of this standout jazz guitarist continues unabated," wrote Bob McCullough in the Boston Globe. It was followed by 7th Ave. Stroll, in 1995, a collection of mostly original compositions and another commercial and critical success as well. His new life in Louisiana had helped move his playing beyond the styles he learned in Boston and New York but 7th Ave. Stroll readily calls to mind the eastern urban ambiance of his beginnings at the Blue Note. With this album, it can be said, he has completed a creative circle.
In a commercial landscape that discourages young guitarists from pursing a career in straight-ahead jazz, Whitfield is a rarity. An academically-trained jazz purist, he is aware of the happy union of technical proficiency and soulful, emotive playing. Still, despite his accomplishments, he endeavors to move even farther from his academic background. He told Jonathan Eig of Jazziz: "I'm prone to playing a lot of notes.... At some point every jazz musician has to pass his technical audition with the audience. But once you do that, people don't want you to bombard them with technical prowess. They want you to show emotion."
by Link Yaco
Mark Whitfield's Career
Student intern at Georgetown University, and considering a medical career when he won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music; graduated high school at 16 and went to Berklee; worked as stockbroker's assistant, 1987; joined the house band at the Blue Note jazz club in New York, 1987; signed with Warner Brothers, 1989; released debut album, The Marksman, 1990; switched labels to Verve Records, 1994.
- Selective Works
- The Marksman, Warner Brothers, 1990.
- Patrice, Warner Brothers, 1991.
- Mark Whitfield, Warner Brothers, 1993.
- True Blue, Verve, 1994.
- 7th Ave. Stroll, Verve, 1995.
- With others From This Moment, Nicholas Payton, Verve, 1995.
- Damn!, Jimmy Smith, Verve, 1995.
- Birmingham News, October 5, 1995; October 9, 1995.
- Dallas Morning News, February 10, 1995, Downbeat, November 1995.
- Jazziz, September 1995.
- Kansas City Star, February 9, 1995.
- Offbeat, October 1995.
- San Diego Union-Tribune, October 14, 1995.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Verve Records publicity materials, 1996.