Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Whitfield, Mark (Adrian)

Guitarist Mark Whitfield’s advanced harmonic sensibility has enabled him to perform in styles which include hard bop, smooth jazz and rhythm 'n' blues. Mark’s strong lyrical devices, influenced by his mentor, guitarist George Benson, have allowed him to showcase the sophistication of the guitar in contemporary jazz.

Mark Adrian Whitfield was born on October 6, 1966 in Syosset, New York. Growing up in nearby Lindenhurst, New York, Whitfield was the youngest of five brothers and sisters. Mark grew up in a household that appreciated music, with his initial musical education being lessons on alto saxophone and bass.

As a child, Whitfield’s parents made sure that the young boy was exposed to several different kinds of music including opera and jazz. An early musical experience for him was the opportunity to see pianist Count Basie at the Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, New York. At the age of seven, Mark’s brother bought him a guitar and an album by blues guitarist Sam “Lightnin” Hopkins. Though he was interested in learning the guitar, he became engrossed in the instrument after seeing George Benson perform on television.

A bright young man, Whitfield was offered a full scholarship to study medicine at Georgetown University at the age of fifteen. At the same time, he also won a scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Seeing music as his true vocation, he convinced his parents to let him attend Berklee. Graduating from high school early at the age of sixteen, he set sail for Berklee to expand his musical education.

Upon entering the curriculum at Berklee, Whitfield studied guitar performance, composition, arranging and film scoring. While attending the school, Mark began to jam with three brothers named Marsalis: saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. Around the same time, he met vocalist and pianist Jody Davis. The two married in 1987 after Mark graduated from college.

Upon graduation, Whitfield and Davis moved to a small studio apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Mark supplemented his income by working as an assistant to a stockbroker on Wall Street. His brother-in-law, drummer Troy Davis, got Mark a job performing with the after-hours house band at the Blue Note club.

Whilst performing at the Blue Note, George Benson heard the young guitarist and was impressed by his performance. Benson heard a lot of potential in the young musician, and secured him a gig with organist Jack McDuff. With McDuff, Mark learned that a formal education could only take you so far in jazz, and hands-on experience with a seasoned veteran like McDuff was what was he really needed to be achieve his musical goals.

Benson's recommendations also gave Whitfield the chance to work with drummers Art Blakeyand Roy Haynes and singer Betty Carter.

While performing with McDuff, Benson put Whitfield in contact with record producer Tommy LiPuma. In 1989 at the age of twenty-three, Whitfield signed his first recording contract with Warner Brothers Records. The following year, he released The Marksman, his debut as a leader. Featuring Troy Davis, bassist Reginald Veal and pianist Marcus Roberts, the album reached number six on Billboard Magazine’s chart of best-selling jazz albums.

The album contains the up-tempo song “Little Digi’s Strut,” a shining example of Whitfield’s early compositional efforts. Mark’s smooth and skillful timbre blends easily into the ensemble without sounding flat or trite. The relationship between Whitfield and Roberts is especially impressive with Roberts playing off of Whitfield’s melodic devices, which gives off the notion of a call and response situation.

In May 1990, Whitfield appeared on alto saxophonist Donald Harrison’s album Full Circle on the Sweet Basil label. In August of the same year, Mark and his wife decided to move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana upon learning that they were to become parents. In Baton Rouge, Mark met saxophonist Alvin Batiste, the head of Southern University’s jazz program. Batiste also became a mentor to Whitfield, and helped him find guidance for his career. While in Louisiana, Mark began to perform with his old classmate Delfeayo Marsalis as well as then up-and-coming trumpeter Nicholas Payton.

In 1991, Whitfield released his second album, Patrice. Accompanied by pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, the album reached number seven on Billboard's Top Jazz Album chart.

The following year, Mark appeared on singer Cleo Laine’s album Blue & Sentimental. The album also featured contributions from pianist George Shearing, alto saxophonist Johnny Dankworth and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan.

For his third album, Whitfield decided to focus on a more commercial minded sound in order to expand his sales and presence in the popular music community. Released in 1993, Mark Whitfield proved to be a modest commercial success and scored a minor hit with his cover of pianist Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl.”

With a moderate hit on his hands, Whitfield began to tour with a large band in order to play the more pop oriented material that was featured on his third album. After a few months, Mark decided to scale the group to a trio feeling that performing his pop catalog was a drain on his artistic vision.

In 1994, Whitfield left Warner Brothers and moved to Verve Records. Mark’s first release for the label was the album True Blue, an album that saw the guitarist returning to his traditional jazz and blues origins. The album was well-received by both critics and fans alike, reaching the number ten position on Billboard Magazine’s Top Jazz Albums. 1994 also saw Whitfield performing with drummer Carl Allen on his album Testimonial and Nicholas Payton’s album From This Moment.

Whitfield quickly followed up with his 1995 release 7th Ave. Stroll, garnering further praise in the jazz community. The album features the song “Harlem’s Nocturne,” a standout performance on the album. Whitfield demonstrates a rhythmic and harmonic complexity that is more akin to a piano. Mark’s melodic lines display an angular quality that adds further excitement to the overall arc of the song. The angularity of said lines are further expanded upon by drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who plays with him in rhythmic unison adding further power to the line.

Mark continued to heighten his career as a sideman, spending 1995 recording with saxophonists Teodross Avery and Courtney Pine, organist Jimmy Smith and rhythm 'n' blues singer D’Angelo. The following year, Whitfield appeared in director Robert Altman’s movie Kansas City, which also featured Ron Carter, guitarist Russell Malone and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redmanand others, playing the roles of the city's legendary jazz musicians of the 1930s.

The following year, Whitfield along with Nicholas Payton and bassist Christian McBride released the album Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock. The album is dedicated to the compositional genius of Hancock and features such standards as “Dolphin Dance” and “Eye of the Hurricane.” The group’s best work can be heard on the song “Oliloqui Valley.”

Whitfield, Payton and McBride, given the instrumentation, leave little to the imagination by shaping a cohesive group that pays full attention to the harmony and melody at hand. Whitfield’s performance is an example of such with his long phrases, tight harmonic commentary and clever articulations, which along with McBride displays a firm harmonic standing. During Payton’s solo, he continues to demonstrate an advanced knowledge of accompaniment by simultaneously supporting the solo and making himself stand out.

In 1998, he released the video Instructional Video for Guitar. On February 9, 1999, Mark released the album Take the Ride, which featured contributions from saxophonist Scott Krietzer, bassist Will Lee and drummer Gene Lake amongst others. The following year, he released the album Raw on pianist Herbie Hancock’s label Transparent Music. The album was recorded at the Iridium club as well as the Zinc Bar and features the Hancock song “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” and the Whitfield original “A Brooklyn Love.”

In 2001, Whitfield performed on singer Mary J. Blige’s album No More Drama, further increasing his profile in the world of popular music. In September 2005, Whitfield accepted a position at Berklee joining with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Danilo Perez and drummers Ralph Peterson and Terri Lyne Carrington as the school’s “Artists in Residence.” His responsibilities include leading ensembles and teaching guitar lessons.

In December 2005, Mark released the album Mark Whitfield Featuring Panther. The album features his group “Panther,” whose members included bassist Byron Moore, drummer Donald Edwards, keyboardist Sy Smith and guitarist Jason Murden. The same month, Mark recorded the live album Live: With Orchestra and Special Guests with trumpeter Chris Botti. The concert features several popular standards including George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and pianist Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.”

In 2009, Whitfield released Songs of Wonder, an album dedicated to the compositions of Stevie Wonder. The album features such songs as “Isn’t She Lovely” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” In March 2009, Mark appeared on Botti’s album Chris Botti in Boston, a live album that featured the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Whitfield continues to teach at Berklee while performing with Botti and as a solo artist. Future projects include collaborations with Christian McBride and Nicholas Payton.

Select Discography

As a leader

The Marksman (1990)

Patrice (1991)

Mark Whitfield (1993)

True Blue (1994)

7th Ave. Stroll (1995)

Forever Love (1997)

Take the Ride (1999)

Raw (2000)

Mark Whitfield Featuring Panther (2005)

Songs of Wonder (2009)

With Carl Allen

Testimonial (1994)

With Donald Harrison

True Blue (1990)

With Cleo Laine

Blue and Sentimental (1992)

With Nicholas Payton

From This Moment (1994)

Contributor: Eric Wendell