Mark Whitfield Jr. comes from a dynasty of incredible musicianship and that has most certainly left a mark on his life as a musician. Beginning on the drums before even he could remember, Whitfield Jr. grew up shuffling around gigs with his father always eager to hop on stage and hold down the beat. Mark will be at the Generations of the BEAT Festival with his quartet for the first time on March 24th and he’s turning 23 that day too! Check out what he had to say about the upcoming festival, advice for developing drummers, and his experience growing up in a musical dynasty.
As a result of having you’re parents both be musicians, you must have started pretty early on the drums. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I don’t really remember how I started; it was a little too early in my development. My dad is a great jazz guitarist and my uncle, Troy Davis, is actually a fantastic jazz drummer as well. So I was just kind of exposed and drums and I went together [laughs]. I don’t remember my life without them to be honest.
Growing up, did you play a lot with your father as a learning tool?
Yeah I was attached to him by the hip! Anytime I could be there, I’d be there. You know, in all those clubs where I wasn’t supposed to be as a five-year-old — I was there. If there was a gig within driving distance, I was there and I was at least going to try and play one song with him.
Do you think that early connection allowed you to connect on a deeper level with other musicians later in your career?
I do. I think it made it easier for me in terms of two things. The generational gap from my dad’s generation to my generation musically is pretty big. So knowing how to work with someone who was older and who I respected and at the same time gave me respect helped me prepare for what I’m doing now.
The fact that he was my dad also reinforced that it was fun. Because of that, it’s always fun for me to play music.
A lot of people don’t necessarily understand the connection you have to make as a drummer with the pianist, the bassist, the guitarist, and others in the rhythm section. Tell me about that process with both new musicians and musicians you already love to work with.
In terms of working with new musicians, the connection that I have with the piano player tells me if we’re coming from the same place or not or if we listen to the same types of things. As far as the drummer and the bass player, I mean, I feel like that’s the most important relationship in jazz due to the fact that it’s the anchor. If that’s not happening, I don’t think anything else can. You have to give a little and you have to get a little. Everybody has to be flexible with each other.
For this gig I’m using Yasushi Nakamura on bass, who I play with in Myron Walden and sometimes my dad’s band as well. I’m playing with my brother too and we grew up in the same room, so we obviously listened to the same stuff. So with them, I don’t have to think about making a connection, we know that it’s going to happen. If there’s a worry about if we’re going to mesh or anything, it takes away from the music.
Who else is in the group you are bringing to the festival?
It’s a quartet with Yasushi Nakamura on bass, my brother Davis Whitfield on the piano, and Josh Evans on trumpet.
What type of songs will you be playing?
It’s going to range mostly from tunes that I grew up listening to that are a little less known like “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” by Wynton Marsalis, a tune called “Black Comedy” by Tony Williams from Miles in the Sky, and also for sure a Kenny Kirkland tune called “Steeped in Faith.” These are the tunes that I grew up with. In terms of my musical development, I feel that they were very important to the drummer that I became today and I think that it’ll be a good honor to the drummers that were on those tracks and also to the whole message of a beat. All of those songs have serious beats.
In terms of your development as a drummer, who influenced your style the most?
My first love was Elvin Jones. My dad is a huge Coltrane fan, so my brother and I kind of grew wanting to be Elvin and McCoy. I’m a ‘90s baby, so as I got older I always checked out a lot of Jeff Watts. I got into Tony when I was about 15 or 16 because he’s a little more advanced. It was hard for me to really understand what was going on before that. So I really studied that. I would try to copycat it and then develop away from it after I felt like I had internalized it.
So I went to Elvin and then I went to Philly Joe and then I went to Art, then back to Philly, then Tony, and then I got to Berklee and I started studying with Ralph Peterson and he’s been my biggest mentor since then. He’s one of the greatest combinations of history and the present in terms of the drums. That’s what I want to try and do so that I can have an original sound.
What do you think is the most important part in developing your own style on the drums?
This might sound a little contradictory, but in order to develop my own style, I had to really learn the history of jazz first. Playing music is just like speaking — I could say the same thing as you, but it’s going to come out differently. But if I don’t have an understanding of where it came from beforehand, it would have no relevance in the situation. I think that’s the most important thing — knowing where and what was happening when the music we aspire to play was being created and developed.
As far as learning the history of jazz, does that mean playing through it, listening to it, arranging parts?
I would say it’s a combination of playing and listening. You can’t force things down someone’s throat, but at the same time there are essential things. I personally listen to music 24/7. Up through college anything I can get my hands on I was listening to. And after that I was playing with records a lot because that was another way to really internalize the beat. I felt like it quickly translated if I listened to it and played along with it.
For anyone looking to get started on the drums, where is a good place to begin?
I would first say getting coordination. Coordination is the most important because once again it’s like having a vocabulary and it allows you to speak. That was something that I learned later on. I didn’t really involve my feet as much when I was younger. I had coordination, but I didn’t use it and I really had to work over the past five or six years to develop stuff that was interesting that wasn’t just hands or just feet. I would say having that balance between the four limbs is the most important thing if you’re just getting started.
How did you go about developing your coordination?
There are a bunch of books out there. The one that I used and thought was really in-depth was a great book by John Riley called The Jazz Drummer’s Workshop: Advanced Concepts for Musical Development. That has a bunch of great comping exercises where you’re interchanging between the left-hand, right-foot, and left-foot while keeping the ride cymbal pattern the entire time consistently. It goes between eight-notes-triplets, sixteenth-note-triplets, and all of that. If you can’t do that and still make it swing, you know you have something to work on. At least in this day and age, people want that intensity — something that’s going to give them a little undercurrent while you’re still swinging. I think that’s what really helps.
Wrapping up, why should people come out to see you at the Generations of the BEAT Festival?
It’s going to be different and it’s going to be new. I hate to tell everybody this, but it’s my 23rd Birthday on March 24th. It’ll actually also be the first gig that this quartet will be doing together, so it’ll be something very special. And you never know, we might have some guests sit in as well.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)