A Musical Journey

By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette

Marc Donadieu / Glacier City Gazette Eli Whitney (L) plays the baritone saxophone during a recent show by The Dirty Hands at The Dive. Chris Lesesne (R)
Marc Donadieu / Glacier City Gazette
Eli Whitney (L) plays the baritone saxophone during a recent show by The Dirty Hands at The Dive. Chris Lesesne (R)

A saxophone is a powerful instrument. It can sound like the blast of a train horn or it can have the tone of a gentle caress, each expressing powerful emotions. In the right hands, a saxophone’s sound is visceral, felt in the body and heard clearly in-between the ears, a combination of feeling and technique.

Eli Whitney may be best known locally for playing saxophones for The Dirty Hands (TDH), but he has been on a musical trek almost all of his life. Though TDH plays as a collective, with each member backing others and sometimes taking the forefront, Whitney still stands out.

Whether you play music or appreciate it in audience, Whitney’s horn playing is head turning and engaging. Once he starts, it’s hard to look away. How he reached this level of musical proficiency began when he was a young boy.

As a little kid around two or three years old, one of Whitney’s earliest memories is going to his grandparents’ house where there was a piano.

“I would go over to the piano and bang on the keys,” Whitney said. “I was fascinated by it. They were very tolerant. I’m sure it was horrible. From a real young age I was fascinated with music.”

Whitney started alto saxophone lessons in third grade while living on Long Island, NY. He remembers an assembly with junior high kids playing music as a group and individually on their instruments. The event left a lasting impression.

“When I heard that kid play the saxophone, I went, “Aw man, that’s what I want to play. I just liked it off the bat.”

Though Whitney was always good student, he was a trouble maker and class clown. His parents had to tell him to do his homework first before playing sax until he went to bed. He started playing tenor saxophone in college when its jazz band needed one. He also took a year of classical flute lessons. Then he took a year off to study with the legendary John Payne.

Whitney recalled, “[Payne] said, ‘You’re not my best student by any means, but you’ve improved the most since you started playing here.’ I loved it. He was showing me the real deal. He showed me stuff that’s not in books. People pass it on word of mouth.”

Payne steered Whitney to jazz teaching legend Charlie Banacos, whose students had to be recommended to get on the waiting list. Whitney studied with Banacos off and on for about three years through college.

“[Banacos] was totally terrifying to study with and then totally encouraging too, if you can imagine those two together. That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life on anything. He gave me so much stuff every week, and everything he gave me I had to learn in 12 keys. When I learned the song, I had to learn it 12 different ways to say that I knew it.”

In 1978, Whitney graduated college and moved to New Haven, Conn., where he listened to a lot of blues and jazz, the kind of music he wanted to play. On weekends he rotated in neighborhood bars with open mics and Hammond B3 organs with Leslie cabinets. The organs are renowned for their sound, and the Leslie cabinet has a large spinning piece that adds a wonderful, shimmering, whirling effect to the music.

“Usually they would hire a guy to play the organ and another guy to play drums,” Whitney said. “There were enough people in the community, really good players that would come out and play guitar and saxophone and everything like that. You’d start about four in the afternoon for cocktail hour. That would go for a while until nine or so, and then you could walk a few blocks to another club from nine to one. Then there were after hour places where you could play until three or four in the morning.”

His musical education continued by listening to and learning from others. He talked about music with more experienced musicians. He met great players who mentored him. They taught him things freely because they saw his appreciation for music and his respect for experienced musicians.

“They told me,’ Whitney said, ‘you listen to what we say. You pay attention. A lot of these young cats come in here and they try to blow us off the bandstand, and they don’t know how bad they are. They don’t know when to stop playing. You’re humble enough to listen.’ If you’re 23 years old and some cat in his 40s gets up and plays, and he’s been playing for years, if that guy plays three choruses, you get up and you play one. You don’t get up and play five choruses.”

Whitney was invited to go on the road with a soul band whose players had experience with heavyweights in the genre. After road adventures with the band, an unpleasant introduction to the mafia side of the music business led him to quit. He returned to New Haven without much money, and it was hard to find a place to stay where he could still play saxophone.

He approached a high school for the performing arts called Education Center for the Arts in New Haven as practice venue to play horn after hours. The school happened to need a band instructor for the jazz ensemble.

The position led to a continuing education grant to study with the renowned Joe Allard who taught at Julliard for decades. Whitney had to call Carnegie Hall to contact him. On weekends Whitney took the train to New York, a bus to New Jersey and a walk to Allard’s house.

“At the time, he was borderline retired,” Whitney said. “He was like a grandpa to me because I was 24. That kind of stuff changes your life. You’re in the presence of greatness in terms of music.”

He continued to play in jams at clubs, which led to other touring opportunities on the rhythm and blues circuit with The Drifters and The Coasters. Afterwards, he realized he wanted to play jazz and blues though he knew he wasn’t going to be able to make a living at it. Payne gave him some sage advice for moving forward musically.

Whitney relates, “[Payne] said if you want to play music, get yourself a minimum wage job because that’s all you’re going to make when you go on the road to start with unless you’re really lucky, and that way your lifestyle will be ready. That way you can quit your job because you won’t care. When you come off the road, you can get another minimum wage job.”

Then Whitney played with a jazz band in Connecticut and a blues band. A great jazz station and a friend turned Whitney on to jazz great and alto saxophone player Jackie McLean. Knowing McLean was teaching in Hartford, Whitney took the bus and looked for him. At first, Whitney was really nervous taking lessons at McLean’s house. They used play-along records with bass and drums for jazz songs.

“We would trade choruses,” Whitney said. “Jackie would play a chorus. Then he also had me learning Charlie Parker tunes, memorizing some of his solos. By that time I knew a bunch of Charlie Parker tunes because I dug him. There are still things Jackie said to me that all of the sudden start to make sense now 30 years later. I learned stuff I didn’t even know I learned.”

Currently, Whitney plays every week at Turkey Red in Palmer where he plays solo with bass ukulele and sings. He has about 80 songs memorized. He plays Chicago blues with Harp Daddy and Backcountry Mojo. Whitney also plays electric ukulele with Canadian singer/song writer Jeannie McCloud, who plays 12-string guitar. They recorded an album together called “Unglued.”

Whitney’s participation in The Dirty Hands happened early in their formation.

“When I first met them,” Whitney said, “it was Chris (Lesesne) and Shawn (Patrick) at that point playing duets. For some reason, their music reminded me of old Vaudeville qualities. There was something old about it like from the early 1900s in my ear. I could hear a bari sax in there, so I told them it would sound really cool.”

Depending on the song, Whitney plays alto, soprano and baritone saxophones and the flute. He initially played baritone with TDH, branched out to play alto, then added a little bit of flute and soprano. Over his career, he’s played tenor the most yet avoids it with TDH.

This fall, TDH is going on a mini-tour for 2½ weeks in Georgia opening for bands. Some members are moving to southern states, so the band will consider its future. A second CD is nearing completion.

“It’s about ¾ done or even a little more than that,” Whitney said. “We’ve been working on it a long time. It’s just the finishing touches. I think our plan is to release it next spring. We have tentative plans to put together a thing in May up here.”

Whitney enjoys the musical dynamic of working with the younger members of TDH. It reminds him of his days learning the trade.

“It gives an old guy a second chance,” Whitney said. “Most of my being on the road and playing rock ‘n’ roll was in my twenties. When I started playing with them, it was a bunch of guys in their twenties. It kind of revisited my glory days, getting to travel around and hang out with some young guys that appreciate some of the older styles of music and are in tune with modern stuff. And they’re great guys. I feel like I’m Uncle Eli. I have a cool bunch of nephews that I get to hang out with.”