Today we have the distinct pleasure to talk with someone who we think it’s fair to say is one of the top jazz musicians in the world today and who has played with and learned from some of the true masters: Marshall McDonald, who has been playing for 20 years with the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, and currently plays lead alto sax in that band. He’s also performed in the Duke Ellington Orchestra and with Lionel Hampton and Paquito D’Rivera.
We’ll admit that we were a bit nervous going into this interview. Marshall has had an amazingly impressive career, and although we’re jazz fans we’re not jazz musicians ourselves – and we know that jazz cats often have an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz records, jazz history and the jazz musicians behind it all. And Marshall’s certainly no exception! But fortunately he is also the most kind and humble guy and it was an absolute pleasure to chat with him – and he certainly didn’t hold back on the amazing stories and insights on teaching and learning jazz – and music in general.
One might assume that a world-leading alto sax player would talk mostly about the specifics of jazz and sax – but as you’ll hear, Marshall’s got a breadth of wisdom and insight that cuts right across music itself. There is a ton in here for any musician to learn from.
In this conversation we talk about:
- Talent, and how he and the amazing musicians he’s worked with and learned from think about talent
- We ask him about learning to improvise, and the balance of preparation versus spontaneity to improvise in a way that moves the listener
- And he helps Christopher shrug off a grudge he’s been harbouring for 20 years and realise some advice that he got back then was actually pretty solid!
Marshall’s a natural story-teller, so this is a really fantastic interview – and we take no credit for that! He’s also a skillful educator, offering private lessons online and giving masterclasses, so he really knows how to explain what he does. Between the stories and the insights, we know you’re going to love this one.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Marshall. Thank you for joining us today.
Marshall: I’m glad to be here. How you doing?
Christopher: Doing well, thank you. You are at the top of your game as one of the world’s leading jazz musicians. And I would love to understand how that came to be. Where did you get started in music? Was it jazz to begin with, did you start at an early age, what’s the backstory for Marshall McDonald?
Marshall: No, it was classical studies. My father was an oral surgeon. I was born in 1959. All of the children took lessons. My brother was already a child prodigy on trumpet, quite advanced. He’s eight years my elder. And what’s interesting is my mother had him babysit me in my crib, and I was told later that he used to practice while I was sleeping.
I told my mother as I got older I started singing two things. I started singing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto and the Vivaldi Trumpet Concerto. They still sit in my mind. I think somewhere along the line, hearing my brother who was quite advanced, hearing my brother practice somehow instilled something in me about the whole concept of music and practice.
Christopher: Wonderful. That’s quite a childhood experience. I think not many people get serenaded by trumpet in their crib, particularly when they’re trying to sleep. It clearly didn’t do you any harm. So when you got to the age of learning music yourself, were you following in your brother’s footsteps on trumpet? Or what did music learning look like for you?
Marshall: Well, I started on clarinet. And of course, my father got me some lessons down at Carnegie-Mellon University where my brother was studying. And every Saturday he put us in the car and took us down there. My first teacher was the principal clarinetist of the Pittsburgh Symphony. My father, being a professional in the medical world, he actually played piano himself, he loved classical music. So he would practice with us, you know, on the piano, and my mother also played piano. We all had to take piano lessons and that kind of thing, and that’s how I started out.
Christopher: And was it enjoyable for you from day one? Did you take to it like a duck to water?
Marshall: I think I did. The good thing is, my parents didn’t put too much pressure on it. I was supposed to practice 30 minutes a day, according to the teacher. I ended up liking it, so I did practice. By the time I was in eighth grade, or whatever that year or however old you are, I was playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.
I did stop playing the piano, which I wish I’d kept up. And I think my mother was tired by then, but being on the third kid, you know, I was like, “Mom, I don’t want to play the piano.” She’s like, okay, okay. So my brother kept on playing the piano. And as he got older, he actually played piano, bass, guitar, and trumpet, so he was quite accomplished in that field.
Christopher: Wonderful. And so you were playing clarinet through high school, presumably. And you went on to study music at college, is that right?
Marshall: Kind of. What happened was, in eighth grade, i found an eight track cassette. I bet none of your listeners even know what that is. But it’s a gigantic looking tape we used to put in a gigantic machine and listen to music. I found a cassette tape in my father’s collection of Louis Armstrong that was a Hello Dolly record.
See, up until that point, he basically just played opera and classical music all around the house all of the time. And as you can imagine, it’s a very educated family. My mother had a master’s degree, so going to the library and doing your studies, honestly, it was different in the 60s and 70s. We had three TV channels. Parents kind of controlled your life. You remember those days?
So I heard this tape and I heard Hello Dolly. And I just fell in love with it. Basically, I just loved the jazz on it. And there was a clarinet player on the recording. It might have been Barney Bigard that I found out later. But it didn’t matter. I thought it was the greatest thing.
Now what I did know was my mother grew up in Pittsburgh, and went to a famous school, Westinghouse High School, with Earl Garner and Grover Mitchell and Earl Fatha Hines and Mary Lou Williams, and all of these great black musicians had gone. See, in that time, the towns were segregated so there were two areas where black people lived. And one of the schools had a great musical teacher. And he was producing large number of really great musicians, so Pittsburgh has a tremendous history in jazz.
She told me later that she loved jazz as a child and went to see jazz players. She actually used to listen to Earl Garner practice. I’m just going to jump into practice because a lot of people said that Earl Garner didn’t read music. They possibly learned later that maybe he had some kind of dyslexia or something. They’re not sure why he couldn’t read music. So a lot of people assume if you can’t read music, it doesn’t make you an accomplished musician. And that’s just not true, first of all.
What she did say that all she remembers was Earl Garner practicing all of the time in the cafeteria on the piano. And I think that’s the key. You know, just practice, no matter what your gift is.
Christopher: Wonderful. Well that’s definitely something I’d like to come back to in a little bit. The gift and practice. But I don’t want to leave the story there. You were enraptured with Louis Armstrong and that Hello Dolly record or eight track. What impact did that have on you? Did you immediately abandon the classical world and run off into jazz?
Marshall: No, of course not. Once you study music, you always study music. Most jazz musicians are playing etudes and Close A studies. Charlie Parker played out of the Closed A book and actually had several of them memorized. Every musician studies both worlds. It’s all music, whether it’s country music, blues, or blue grass. There’s only 12 notes on the European scale.
Basically what happened, much to my father’s chagrin, I told him I wanted a saxophone, because when I got to high school, I wanted to join the jazz band. He wasn’t too happy about that, but because he loved me, he bought me a saxophone so I could learn it. And he teased me about it. But I started practicing and pretty much got it together through my clarinet teacher. And I did join, I actually joined the stage band in 10th grade. Whatever you are, 13, I think at that time?
Christopher: Wonderful. It’s great that your dad was happy to support you in that way. I’m not going to try to draw comparisons between your musical career and my own, but I wanted to learn saxophone myself in high school and I was told I could not learn saxophone until I first mastered the clarinet.
And so I had four years of clarinet, being told I had to get the clarinet embouchure just right before I was allowed a saxophone and then finally, that day came and I was able to join the wind band and play sax. And life was much better.
Marshall: That’s a good story. You reminded me of when I first started out as a child wanting to play. I picked the oboe. And a very wise teacher said the exact same thing. He said, “Your son should start on clarinet. If he plays clarinet, he can move to any of the woodwind instruments after that.” It was a great advantage to me because many saxophone players have so much trouble going back to the clarinet.
There was a time, back when the big bands were started, everyone started on clarinet. The clarinet is the home instrument. They are correct. Being home, that is, if you can learn to play clarinet and master the clarinet, you can move to many of the woodwinds from there. But moving from the flute or saxophone to the clarinet is extremely difficult.
Christopher: Interesting. I’ve been harboring a grudge for 20 years and I’m going to have to finally let it go. Clearly the advice that was given was actually valid. They weren’t just trying to fill spots in the orchestra that had an empty clarinet seat.
Marshall: You know Artie Shaw, the great, great clarinetist, one of the greatest ever?
Christopher: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Marshall: And a great classical player. He was also a great lead alto saxophone player.
Christopher: Interesting. Well, it certainly jumped out at me that you play all saxophones and woodwind instruments, you know, for a musician as accomplished as you are. You know, for someone to play lead alto in the Count Basie Orchestra, I don’t think people would expect that you had also reached such a high level on other instruments. Maybe we can just touch on why that is possible for you.
Marshall: That basically came out of my professor at University of Pittsburgh. My father taught at the University of Pittsburgh. Believe it or not, you asked me did I go to college for music? No, I actually started out for two years studying biology and chemistry to become a doctor like my sister. That’s how I started out.
When the band director found out how much I really liked music, he actually made a special arrangement for me. Mark Kirk was a student of Phil Woods who lived in the Poconos. I was going to Lafayette College which is very close to the Poconos where Phil Woods was living. Well, he had a prize student up there. His name was Mark Kirk who I met at one of these jazz concerts.
My band director at Lafayette arranged for me to get a van, drive into the mountains, and take a few lessons with Mark Kirk. The things that he taught me in those few lessons was, believe me, I did not understand very well. And he was a little frustrated with me because he was so advanced. But the things he taught me when I finally got them together years later would change my whole playing concept and I still teach them today.
Christopher: Amazing. Could you give an example or two of what he taught you in those lessons that you’ve come back to all these years later?
Marshall: I sure could because Phil Woods is, or was, one of the best jazz saxophone teachers out there. And so many of his students that you know are playing. Vincent Herring and so many others are all over the place. John Gordon, Richie Cole.
The first that he did is I brought out these fake real books. You know, with the fake charts and stuff? And I had all this music and all this stuff. And Mark took it and he threw it on the ground and he said, “Never come back to my house with again with those, okay?” That was the first thing he said.
He said to play jazz, you have to listen to jazz, you have to learn to hear jazz, and you have to learn your scales and your chords. That was the first lesson. He wrote out a few woods exercise, which I still have and still pass on to students, which involved a chord change. I didn’t know that at the time. It was a minor scale, a dominant scale, with a diminished scale over top of it, ana a major scale. Pretty much going up the ninth. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da.
That was the pattern and it continued through to diminish and go down to the major. That was my first lesson. Now it took years for me, because he said you have to learn this in all 12 keys. You know, I’m a biology major and this is one of the first jazz lessons I really had. So when I came back and I hadn’t quite figured it out, he was a little frustrated.
You know, the way he taught and Phil taught is he would sit at the piano and play chords, you know, which is the way it was when I started with George Coleman, he say at the piano and played chords. So it took a while to get that together.
Now you asked me about the saxophones. It was Dr. Nathan Davis. When I came back to Pittsburgh and transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, I started as a music major. Dr. Nathan Davis was one of the first who started the jazz program in the United States at the University of Pittsburgh. He, and, see, you get older and you can’t remember nothing, right? David Baker. David Baker and Dr. Davis were some of the two first who started a jazz program.
The schools at that time didn’t really accept the jazz degree, though. You know, it wasn’t really acceptable, so it had to be something else, or ethnomusicology or something like that. One day Dr. Davis, Nathan said to me, he said, “You’re really focused on be-bop and the alto saxophone.” But he said, “You know, music is very difficult to make money in. You have to learn to do a lot of different things.” For instance, this is a quote, “You can’t be a janitor and walk in here and say, ‘oh, I’m sorry. I don’t clean tile floors.'” That’s exactly what he said.
And after he said that, I think he handed me a soprano saxophone from the rental office and said please go home and start this. And so you see where I’m going. Later on, he gave me a tenor saxophone and said, “I need you to take this home and learn how to play this.” Then he had me playing baritone saxophone. So that’s really how it happened. So what I learned was that each saxophone is a separate voice, though. You can’t play the tenor like you play alto. You can’t use the same airstream, you can’t use the same concept, or you’re going to sound like an alto player playing tenor.
Christopher: Interesting. And it sounds like some really amazing people were taking an interest in you at this phase. What do you think that they saw in you that they were willing to kind of invest in you in this way?
Marshall: I have no idea. I was a little crazy then. I was young. But I guess the one thing they saw was that I was willing to work hard. The band went to Trinidad and Tobago. And we also had jazz seminars with James Moody and Freddie Hubbard and Grover Mitchell, and everyone would come in Pittsburgh. There were also some very great local musicians, Eric Closs. There was a group of young musicians, Ned Gould, Frank Molla, Andy Fite, Dave Budway, Leon Lee Dorsey. Many of them moved up to New York, and they were more advanced than me.
Ned Gould went to play with the Harry Connick orchestra. Dave Budway played with people in New York. Leon Lee Dorsey has a doctorate, played with Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton. So there was a heavy scene. You know, Eric Closs was there. He was a staple. He was a child prodigy. So it was something going on in Pittsburgh.
So I didn’t just learn from Dr. Davis, I learned from these guys. For instance, Frank Molla was a tremendously talented and advanced trombone player. The way he learned to play was he had transcribed, I’m not even sure how, he knew how many. When I say transcribed, he learned solos off of records, and they were records, everyone. They were records. You know, off of records, memorized them, and he knew at least 400 or more of them. And so when he would come over to my house, well not a house, to my little room in those days, if you put on a Miles Davis record or J.J Dawson, he could play along with the solo without reading any music.
So one day I said to him, Frank, how can I learn how to play jazz? And he said to me, Pittsburghers talk like this, you know, they talk through their nose. He said, “You know, Marshall, you know, you got technique. You got a good sound. You just need to listen to the big birdy.” I said, the big birdy? Who’s that? He said, “Charlie Parker. All you need to do is just transcribe a bunch of Charlie Parker solos.”
What he told me was, and he thought playing along with Jamey Aebersold records and reading solos, and learning to read chords in that way didn’t teach you to play jazz. And then as I got with a lot of the heavier musicians in town, every one of them said the same thing. You have to learn to hear to play any music, basically.
Christopher: Interesting. So I want to circle back in a little bit and talk more about transcribing and that process of learning jazz. But let’s continue with the story for a little bit. So you were immersed in this amazing Pittsburgh scene. And at this point, you had switched to ethnomusicology to cover your jazz program?”
Marshall: No. I made a self-designed major. You know, they were just coming up with the jazz major. And I picked courses and honestly, I was, there was a lot of partying going on in those days. Basically, maybe what they saw in me that I was willing to practice a lot. So when I say we went to Trinidad and Tobago, he had given me a soprano and I was playing lead alto on saxophone. I basically was an alto saxophone player at the time. I got a flute in high school to learn how to play flute because I knew they had those in the parts.
I used to sit on the bus. They had some kind of bus that would take us places. So everyone was at this party, including Nathan Davis, which is a funny story. He came running out of the party because we were in Trinidad, apparently some lizard had run up his pants, right? And he’s running around, help me, help me! But what I was doing was, I actually was on the bus for hours, practicing the soprano saxophone.
And people were reminding me, they said, you didn’t go to class and stuff, but you sat in the practice room downstairs and you used to practice six or eight hours a day.
I’m going to jump in with something I know you’re going to ask. You want to talk, people were always curious about talent. How do I learn music? What’s the process? How do I enjoy music? It’s really simple. First of all, you have to remember why you enjoy music in the first place. That’s step one. Don’t look at it as work. What song do you like? What song moves your heart? Have you ever listened to a song or listened to the words and it makes you cry?
Christopher: For sure.
Marshall: So any person in the world can play music. I’m not saying that any person in the world can be Michael Brecker because that’s just not true. That’s like saying anyone can be Mozart. No. There’s only, those people are like alien beings. They’re like from another planet. There’s only going to be one Mozart, one Beethoven, one Michael Brecker, one John Coltrane, one Dizzy Gillespie, one Charlie Parker. Those are surely the masters that show us the way.
But that doesn’t mean we all can’t get enjoyment out of music, whatever level we’re on. So the first thing is just you remember the joy of the music. Now how did I start to learn jazz? I had classical teachers, so they basically couldn’t tell me anything of what to do. They didn’t know, but I was in the jazz band.
A kid came up in 10th grade, and he had actually had a jazz teacher on saxophone, so he knew about chords and stuff. And he sounded pretty good. And I’ll be honest, I was envious. You know, I was two years older and I was a little bummed out. I never was taught that stuff. My classes as a clarinet player were, well, you know.
I had a solo my senior year, and this kid was in 10th grade. And we’re still friends on Facebook, by the way. And he was good. So this is what I did, and this is what I think everyone should remember. I recorded the band where my solo was supposed to be. I took the tape home, and night after night I sat there and I sung what I thought that I might play along with the recording, right? So whatever it was I was singing, I slowly wrote that down on a piece of paper.
And this went on night after night. You know, I would listen to the recording and maybe you know, do, do, do, do, do. I would just sing. I had no idea what I was singing at all. You know, the technical scale of it, I just knew it was the key of G. After that, I was still a little confused. So I wrote out this whole solo. Then I memorized my solo, what I had sung, right?
And so we’re down at Duquesne University and my father did come. Remember the man, much to his chagrin who one day had told me, “Uh, son, you know the saxophone sounds like a tugboat. Do you really have to play that?” I’m sure you know about that. But my dad came down to this thing, and I won the award for the best soloist of the band.
So how should you learn jazz or any music? Whether it’s classical, jazz, rock and roll? First of all, don’t isolate and say it’s jazz and there’s a special way to play it. It’s music. The classical masters could all improvise. Mozart, Beethoven. Improvising is actually just spontaneously composing. That’s all it is. Mozart could improvise because he had a mastery of harmonic progressions, chords, where they should go, all of the scales, all of the patterns that he could possibly play.
There’s a famous story of Mozart sitting down and what they call variations on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Maybe while he was drinking. And no one knows if the story is true is not. But the point is, and I know this from studying classical music, that the masters could improvise. And that’s simply making up spontaneous composition. It’s the same as composing.
So when you improvise jazz, you’re not really making things up or in the moment or jamming, it’s none of that. It’s basically studying scales, chords, patterns, devices, understanding the harmony, writing it down, completing absorbing it into your mind just like Mozart.
As you know, Mozart didn’t write at a piano. He sat with a paper and wrote out a complete symphony from his mind. That’s what I’m talking about. A great jazz player has absorbed so much of the music, that they can spontaneously compose a solo full of the devices and the things they’ve learned.
Now how does that relate to a young person or a young adult who just wants to enjoy some music? I think they should think like guitar players. You know how guitar players get a rock record and learn a riff just off the record or learn the song? Honestly, I believe in the Suzuki method for piano. Learning to hear by ear first and not reading music first.
When our mother spoke to us, she didn’t write down something and had us read us. We just spoke back what we heard. And so what happens in the lessons when I was young, because my ear was good, my piano teacher was frustrated because I wasn’t reading the music. I don’t remember who it was. The person would demonstrate the song and many times I could just play it back by ear and then she or he figured that out and got angry with me. And told my mother, “He’s not reading the music.”
And my brother was even much better at it than me. I know I’m talking a lot and you probably got to edit this out.
Christopher: No. I wouldn’t edit a word. There was so much packed in there that I would love to talk at length about. One thing to pick up on is just I love that you were using your voice. Just instinctively, you decided to sing your solo before trying to write it down because it’s something we really harp on at Musical U.
You know, a lot of instrument players are reluctant singers, but we really try and get across to them that you know, if you can imagine in your mind and then use your voice to explore it or express it, that’s such a powerful tool for you to not have to worry about the fingers on the instrument when you’re in that creative moment. And particularly for something like improvising where you want to get to that pure, kind of instinct for expression.
But I also love that you described there that process of kind of stockpiling patterns or vocabulary or systems like chords and scales to kind of equip yourself for that spontaneous composing. And that’s really, really interesting to hear about for a top-level improvisor and jazz musician like yourself. It’s so fascinating to hear how you think about this stuff.
Marshall: Honestly, I think all musicians think the same way. I’ve been blessed to, I started off with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. So I got to sit with some great musicians there. And I’ve been fortunate to meet almost everyone who was alive, either through Lionel Hampton or Basie honestly. Clark Terry, Art Farmer, George Benson, Frank Foster, Frank West, Danny Turner, James Moody. I played with Paquito D’Rivera.
My point is this. After talking to all of these great musicians, none of them said that there’s no magic to this whatsoever. It’s all a craft. And there was a bass player in Pittsburgh who told me that one day. His nickname was Joe Blow. I forgot what his name was, but that’s what he called himself. And so I was trying to learn be-bop. All those people I mentioned were much more advanced than me, you know.
And one day he said to me, “Marshall, it’s a craft. This is not magic. It’s a craft. You’re going to have to memorize chord numbers.” Like when you think of a scale, like a pianist first learns one, two, three, four, five. Five, four, three, two, one. We then have to attach those numbers to every scale, right? That’s the first step, just like a piano player. So when I was taught from the Phil Woods lesson when I practiced, and this is painful for people because it takes a long time.
You know, Michael Brecker practiced about 16 hours a day. Charlie Parker practiced 15 to 16 hours a day, every day, for a period of three years. Sonny Stitt said he practiced eight hours a day for 10 years. The classical players are just as extreme. I’ve talked to piano players who would practice 10 hours a day. You have to take a break.
So about the number system, how to improvise. When you take a scale, you have to assign a number to the scale. And this is the way I teach on Skype or any person. And this is the same thing Berklee does too, now. It’s a number system. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. So that is, if I’m talking to you, I have to be able to know a note. For instance, if I say to you, what’s the fourth note of E-flat major?
Christopher: A flat?
Marshall: Okay. That was too late because the chord-
Christopher: The moment’s gone.
Marshall: And that’s what George Coleman told me sometimes when I would hesitate. He said, “It’s too late, Marshall.” He said, “The piano player already played that E-flat, and you missed it.” So how I practiced was painfully slow. At times literally punching the music stand in frustration. This is the way I would practice. C 1, D2. I would say it out loud. E 3, F 4. That’s how I practiced. Very, very slowly.
I learned later that Barry Harris, I had figured something on my own that was right because Barry Harris used to teach the same way in New York. People would sing it like this, I am singing a major scale. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. What I was doing myself was exactly what the masters were teaching.
So it’s not magic. Say we’re the beginner student or the middle student. We want to have some fun. We’re not going to become professionals, right? We need to make this fun. So my brother taught me a lot. He said, if you want to learn to hear, play a TV theme song by ear. Play Happy Birthday by ear in different keys. Play Mary Had a Little Lamb. If you hear a rock song you like, he said don’t go buy the music. He said just learn it by ear.
How do we learn by ear? Humans sung first before playing instruments. Singing is the root of all music. Classical music, especially. I can’t tell you how many times I was sitting with my father playing piano, and he’s playing the Mozart Concerto part on piano and he’s going, “Sing, Marshall, sing.” (Singing). Right? So if you watch a master pianist, they’re breathing at the spot that they should breathe, right? They go (singing), because they’re thinking like a singer.
I know I got a lot to say. You might have to make two podcasts, man. You might have to make two hours, you know. I love David Sanborn. I love rock music. I love classical music. I love music in general. I grew up in rock music because it was the 60s and the 70s. My brother went off to Air Force, you know, that’s the pile of records before my dad threw them out.
It was Sgt Pepper’s. You know, remember the Beatles record? It was Jimi Hendrix. What’d they call the one Purple Haze was on?
Christopher: Electric Ladyland?
Marshall: Something like that. It was all those records, right? So I’m listening to these. I heard my brother listen to them. I really loved the Beatles, man. And then a sax player said, from college, “If you like saxophone, you need to listen to David Sanborn.” He had his first record in ’76. He had me buy me the 1977 record named Sanborn. I wanted to play, I tried to copy David Sanborn off of the records. I actually had the scales wrong. I didn’t know what he was playing, but I would just pick the notes off by ear.
Christopher: Amazing. And so it was very much kind of an immersion, ear-led, and very practice-heavy learning experience for you by the sounds of it. This wasn’t one of these mythological stories of the great jazz musician who just kind of dabbled on the instrument and had a gift and had amazing success with it. You were clearly putting in the work and surrounding yourself with amazing, inspiring people that you could learn from.
Marshall: I think the key was, though, was i just enjoyed, honestly, I just enjoyed listening to the records. I didn’t really play in any bands in high school. I wasn’t smart enough to figure out to learn songs off of records. All guitar players do, you know. Pretty soon they’re playing a jam. They’re playing Led Zeppelin or something. I never figured that out because honestly, I was really immersed in this classical clarinet and the reading of music. And I was trying to figure out this improvising thing.
There was a guitar player in school who was really playing be-bop, really good. I mean, I’m still friends with him. He lives in Sweden. But he is somehow figured out that you just get a bunch of records and transcribe solos. I hadn’t quite figured that out yet.
Christopher: So we have talked a little bit about the kind of preparation work and study that goes into being able to improvise in terms of learning scales and chords and teaching yourself this numbering system to understand the notes of the scales. But you made a comment in one of your blog posts I loved, which was I think a lot of our listeners could relate to, which you said, “A lot of jazz is calculated brain music. Jazz should have three things: dance, melody, and blues.” I’d love to hear you talk about that a little bit because if it’s not just preparation and careful kind of logical planning of which notes to play, where does that great improvising come from?
Marshall: Hmm. I’ll talk about the first quote. Jackie Kelso was playing lead alto when I first joined the Count Basie Orchestra. I did not really know who Jackie Kelso was, but I quickly learned that he was part of The Wrecking Crew. Do you know what The Wrecking Crew is?
Marshall: That was the great recording group of Los Angeles. Hal Blaine, Carole Kaye, who were recording out of, Plas Johnson, recording like the Beach Boys. Glen Campbell. Jackie Kelso was part of that recording group. He was actually in retirement by the time Grover Mitchell brought him back from Los Angeles to play.
I think what all musicians need, and I think what anyone needs in life is always to have mentors. I’ve always searched out and found, and been lucky to find mentors. I don’t think you can get anywhere without a mentor. And you’re always learning, you know, whether you’re my age or whether you’re 12. You know, for instance, my mentor first was my brother, and then my father. And then Mr. Thompson from symphony and then Mr. Ballawatcher from Carnegie-Mellon. You need a mentor to guide you.
Like I said, there’s very few Mozarts. It was Jackie Kelso who told me one day, he said, he had this very interesting way of talking. He was very sophisticated. He’s actually on the Steely Dan record Aja in the saxophone section. Look on the record, it says Jackie Kelso. He’s on thousands of recordings.
He lived in a trailer outside of the studio, there was so much work. That’s a true story. It’s been verified. He told me that. I asked Plas Johnson later and he said, “Yep. He lived in this trailer. They would beep the beeper.” There was no cell phones, remember, and he would go in a recording session.
One day Jackie said to me, he said, “You have more than enough technique to work the rest of your life, but what you’re missing is the depth. There’s no depth in your playing.” What he told me is he played with Dizzy Gillespie when he was young, and Lionel Hampton. And he said Dizzy was the first person who first talked about that to him. He said when you’re playing, it’s go tot have dance in the music.
And my brother, I remembered later, told me the same thing about Beethoven and Mozart. He reminded much of that was played for people who were dance, that sometimes we were listening to the music in the wrong way. Sometimes, he said, if you take Beethoven and instead of tapping one and three, put it on two and four, listen to it, you’re going to hear a much different concept of what Beethoven was doing. Because even in the symphonies, honestly, there’s dance going on.
Music has always served a function. Music has rarely ever been something that people sat down and listened to. It’s always either a religious thing, a communication thing, a spiritual moment, a celebration. Music has not been like what it’s become lately where people sit at a concert. And that’s why I think so many people love rock concerts and pop concerts, because you’re participating in the party.
You know, when people start to sit in their chair and look at music, it’s never been our history of doing that. And Mozart had to write a lot of stuff for the king and queen, do you remember? But the common people weren’t listening to Mozart, right? They were listening to the local folk music. They had no interest in listening to that. I got sidetracked. You got to bring me back.
Christopher: So yeah, you’ve got to have that dance.
Marshall: The dance. The dance.
Christopher: I think that’s something that jumps out about the Basie Orchestra too, isn’t it? That it’s always that spirit of dance.
Marshall: When Jackie first told me about the dance. Just in the last five years, the great Houston Person, he’s a saxophonist, recorded about 50 records. Very, very longevity in this business. I met him years ago. So one day on the phone he said to me, “Marshall, you know, the secret to music is melody, dance, and swing to jazz music.” And he actually said the Count Basie Orchestra was always more popular than the Duke Ellington Orchestra, though the Duke Ellington Orchestra had some of the most sophisticated music in the world.
But he said what Count Basie figured out to do was always have melody, dance, and swing. And so when you went to a Count Basie concert, the people say it’s like going to a party, right? It’s like having fun. You leave feeling like that you had fun. Honestly, sometimes I think that’s missing from a lot of jazz music today, that feeling of the party and the dance and the fun.
Christopher: Interesting. So let’s talk a little bit about the Count Basie Orchestra. You’ve been an alumnus for 20 years in various sax chairs. And I’d love to know where that came into your own musical journey, and also, I guess, what’s so distinctive about that orchestra in particular? That band?
Marshall: Well, the Count Basie Orchestra is one of the most singularly most influential big bands to the way every big band plays in the world today. That’s simply a fact. What the Count Basie’s genius was coming up with this style and sound, which has pretty stamped every single big band you will hear today. It’s hard to listen to any recording that you find today and not be able to find some kind of Count Basie influence on it. That’s the most important thing.
So when I was at college, going to school and I was playing lead alto and I could read good, and I had a good sound you know, from my studies. Joe Williams was a guest artist. Nathan Davis brought in a lot of people to come into the school. And so I was playing lead alto and my buddy and I, he wanted to study arranging. So since he liked arranging, he liked listening to big bands. So we would drive around in his truck through Pittsburgh and he’d have Count Basie on all the time, you know?
So we’re listening to Count Basie and Joe Williams was a guest. We’re playing the park and Joe stops the band and says, “Oh, saxophones, you know you’re not playing that right. Play it like this guy here. This guy in the front right here,” which was the biggest compliment I felt I had ever gotten, right? So that was my first thing.
Now my brother reminded me later, but I don’t remember, my brother said, “You know, you told me one day, you said ‘I want to play in the Count Basie Orchestra.'” And he said, you know, you did it. So you should be proud of yourself.
The Count Basie Orchestra is like a living organism. We don’t play what’s on the paper. I’ve heard a lot of people play Count Basie music but it doesn’t sound like Count Basie. There’s an interpretation to the music going in the way the band plays. The one thing that Mr. Basie had members that stayed a long time in the orchestra. That’s very important.
I got to meet so many of them when I first subbed in the band in 1994. Frank Foster brought me in and there were a lot of the Count Basie original from playing with Count Basie there. Danny Turner was the one who told me, because I asked them a lot of questions about playing lead alto. I was sitting beside him one day playing second alto or something. And he was saying the style was past.
There’s two Count Basie bands, by the way. There’s the first generation one, you know, with Earle Warren playing lead alto and then the band kind of went out of business. Then the second generation, which is what most people know with Frank Foster, Frank West, Al Grey, that band. That’s most of the music people know.
So Marshall Royal was the lead alto player. And as you know, Marshall had a very unique style of the lip slurs and the glissandos, the bursting into the notes and the vibrato. What’s fascinating about Marshall is that he added all that himself. It’s not on the music. It’s his voice. So one of the great players that sat underneath him at first was Bobby Plater. And then Danny Turner was sitting beside Bobby later.
So Danny explained to me was happened was Marshall was in the band a long time, so we all learned from Marshall. Bobby learned by sitting next to Marshall. I learned by sitting next to Bobby. And then I got to sit next to Danny and I was listening to him play the way he interpreted the music. And when I took over lead alto, John Williams said to me, “You know, you’re playing lead alto. This is the most important thing that you need to know. Two things. You need to sing, and you need to have fun.”
And then Bill Hughes, the great Bill Hughes who’d been playing in the band some 54 years and led the band, he told me it’s really great that you love Marshall Royal, but what I want you to do is I need you to put your own voice on that chair, to find your own way of playing it.
Christopher: And when you talk of singing there, we’re not talking about the kind of singing we were talking about before in terms of creating your solo by singing out loud. You mean, kind of singing through the instrument? Is that right? Being lyrical with it?
Marshall: Yes, that’s correct. All, all, all musicians that sing through the instrument, they need to get back to singing through the instrument and stop thinking of how many notes they can play and how many patterns they can play. Music is about singing and touching people. Music should be listenable. Music should move someone. You should tell a story. It’s not about impressing someone with how many patterns that you’ve memorized, because anyone can do that, clearly. Everyone in the world has learned the jazz method. That’s the method I told you about. Memorizing patterns and scales, et cetera, et cetera. But how many great musicians are?
And I mentioned David Sanborn before. Michael Brecker loved David Sanborn. James Moody said he loved. I met David several times now. He’s one of my favorites because David can say more with one note than most people would say with a series and a flurry of a whole bunch of notes. And what he’s doing is he’s soulful, he’s singing. It’s melodic. But if you listen to his playing, it’s always like you would sing. (Singing). He’s always singing.
In history, the people that have lasted the longest were singing. As complicated as John Coltrane became, you could still sing even the most complicated parts of the solo. It was still beautiful. I know you said you have a lot of middle ground amateur musicians and that’s why I go back to if you want to learn a song, don’t buy the music. Pretend you’re a guitar player. If you play sax or piano or trumpet or guitar or bass, or whatever it is, nowadays get the mp3 and listen to it.
The way that we learn a song is we sing it first and then we try to play it on our instrument by picking it out one note at a time. That’s how guitar players learn how to play. And that’s why Joe Walsh and those guys sound so different. You know, and that’s why rock and roll took over, to tell you the truth. Miles Davis figured that out. If you listen to Miles Davis, first he loved rock and roll. He loved Jimi Hendrix and he loved Sly and the Family Stone.
But Miles was always singing when he played, if you listen to his playing very carefully. Miles said once he knew the words to all of those songs he was playing.
Christopher: Amazing. I think that’s given such a fascinating insight into the mind of a top-level jazz performer and improvisor. I’ve really loved hearing how you think about these things because you know, there’s so many musicians confused about what it takes to improvise or you know, the balance between theory and ear. And memorizing and preparing versus spontaneity. And I think you’ve given a really great picture of how you think about all this.
Marshall: I think for the person who’s beginning to improvise, they need to go back to the beginning of jazz or something that I can improvise. And basically in New Orleans, what people were doing was, they were taking the melody and then they were slowly changing the melody by ear. That should be the first way everyone learns how to improvise. If you have a teacher that shows you play one, two, three, five, or something like that, that’s the wrong way to go about it. Because now you’re memorizing notes.
So you should take a song like, for instance, as Wynton Marsalis has demonstrated over and over again at his clinics, you take a song like Happy Birthday, and then the second time you just change Happy Birthday a little bit. You just make stuff up. If you make a mistake, it’s okay. You’re practicing. You know, that’s the whole idea. If you can think of anything to play, just try changing a couple of notes.
You know, you might go, first time go Happy Birthday, da-da. (Singing). Now you say, I don’t really know what to do. So next time, it would go, (singing). So that’s pretty good. What else can I go? What about you go, (singing). You added one note. (Singing). So how do you find those notes? You sing it first. You have to start singing, whatever you’re doing. And you’ve got to have fun. You got to have to make this fun.
And then like an hour goes by in no time at all. And that’s how everyone should start to improvise, by ear first. Not by theory first. It’s kind of backwards.
Christopher: Love it. We recently added improv modules inside Musical U. And I think I’m going to go back and put in a big quote that says, “Marshall McDonald says sing first and have fun,” because that is exactly the right spirit to take to it. I love it.
So, Marshall, we’ve talked a bit about your playing with with the Count Basie Orchestra and I’ve been loving your two solo records, well not solo, but under your own name. Standardize and Mama Knows Everything. What else is going on in the world of Marshall McDonald? You’re clearly a very fluent educator in explaining what you do as well. Is that part of what you do these days?
Marshall: Yes. That really is my goal. I would like to settle down and teach and possibly even teach at a college or teach sax lessons. Like I said, I’ve been so lucky. I only touched upon what a few of the things people told me. I think the key for anyone, though, is to absorb what it is that people are telling you, and always be humble. You know, don’t act like I know everything and I’m not going to listen to this person, because that’s kind of silly.
So basically, I’m looking to teach. I’ve also been playing a baritone saxophone with Abdullah Ibrahim a lot lately. We’re going to Paris, to Marseilles, coming up in August. Abdullah is very interesting for me because see, in the Basie band or any big band, you don’t get a lot of time to solo. Abdullah’s using just four horns and I’m playing baritone sax, so of course, there’s a lot more solo space and a lot more freedom.
Abdullah encouraged all of us to start writing music and to start finding our own sound. I think he’s absolutely correct. The music industry’s changing a lot. Maybe you’re aware of that. What do you play? Clarinet? Saxophone?
Christopher: I play these days mostly bass. Yeah, clarinet and saxophone in my past. And these days mostly guitar.
Marshall: You get more work on bass. Everyone needs a good bass player. The industry’s changing a lot, you know, and some things not for the better. We do have a very advanced college education system and some very advanced saxophone players. I remember I heard Lee Konitz say 25, you know Lee Konitz, the great Lee Konitz? One of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time.
He came out of the Lennie Tristano school. That was the school opposite of Charlie Parker. Lennie Tristano was a pianist in the 40s and 50s. Warren Marsh, Lee Konitz, incredible music. There’d be no Paul Desmond without Lee Konitz.
So once Lee said years ago, he said these kids have so much more technique than I ever will have. But you know, so many times, so many of us would rather go, Lee could play, he had technique, but I know what he means. We would rather go listen to Lee Konitz. I was listening to Paul Desmond play at tune live at Carnegie Hall. Maybe it’s called Eleven Four or something like that. He wrote it. It’s a time signature, it’s eleven beats over four.
It was just so marvelous and beautiful, besides being so, such a mastery of a solo. It was also wonderful to listen to. And that’s kind of been my thing lately, telling people that jazz sometimes has gotten so educated with everyone knowing every John Coltrane lick and every pentatonic scale, and wanting to impress the other musicians, that the audience, they didn’t notice, walked out of the room.
Because in Pittsburgh, the way it was, it was about being in a bar. You know, you’re looking at steel workers. They had a hard day at work. Maybe they got some trouble at home. They’re coming down there to relax and have a good time. They don’t want you educating them with the deepest John Coltrane thing you have.
What used to get people shouting in the bar was when you played a blues lick in Pittsburgh, you know, like say, you’re going along. You’re going like, wow. (Singing). And the people, wow, you know, and they’re drinking, they’re smoking. See, that’s what the, Stanley Turrentine came from Pittsburgh, right? I heard a lot, and I got to meet Stanley when he came back to Pitt to be a clinician.
And Stanley had a prolific, long career because he always played the blues, he always spoke to people. He is one of Michael Brecker’s favorite players, was Stanley Turrentine, you know? And Michael Brecker said he listened to guitar players, did you know that? His focus was on a lot of guitar players.
I did get to speak with Michael Brecker a few times. I was very fortunate. I loved his playing from the late 70s. One of the first solos someone told me to learn was a Michael Brecker solo on Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight by James Taylor. You know, I found a lot of young people didn’t even know that he played the original sax solo on that song. I guess I’m old.
It’s a beautiful solo and again, because Michael’s singing during the solo. You know, Michael played with Carly Simon, James Taylor, Paul Simon, you know, on the Cameo, Cameo record. Great solos. If you listen to Michael Brecker’s solos all of the time on those pop records, he’s singing like Maceo Parker or Hank Crawford. When I mean singing, he’s playing a phrase that’s musical. He’s not playing notes that he’s memorized.
What happens when you practice a lot of jazz and you learn your patterns, Michael said he had a method in high school. He’s obviously incredibly talented. His brother could play. Michael told me his method was writing down different patterns on music because he couldn’t remember them and then he would play them in different intervals and different sequences all over the saxophone front. Four hours after school and then when he got to college, eight to 12 hours a day.
So honestly, there’s no magic at all, you know. Everyone has a different gift, I agree with that. And some people, most of us are not going to be John Coltrane or Michael Brecker, you know. So we have to accept that. But they’re like our sensei, our key teachers. The masters that came and visited a little while showed us, here’s the possibilities of what you might do. You get to grab a little bit from them.
But what I first liked about Michael Brecker was the joy I felt listening to his music. So again, I’m going to go back to that every adult student, young student, if you’re 40 years old and want to play saxophone, it’s all about the joy of listening to the music.
Christopher: I love it. Well, in the same way you were talking about looking up to those greats like Coltrane as a sensei or maybe a space alien but can inspire you, I just think it’s a phenomenal day and age we live in that I have the opportunity to speak with someone like yourself at length and hear these amazing stories and insights. But also that adult saxophone player or clarinet player who wants to study with you has that opportunity, you know?
You’re very generous with your time as an individual educator through Skype lessons and also through giving workshops. And I just think that’s an amazing opportunity where you don’t need to travel halfway around the world to study with today’s greats. You can do it in the comfort of your own home.
So I definitely encourage anyone who’s been inspired by today’s conversation to head to Marshall’s website. We’ll have a link in the show notes. But it’s marshallmcdonald.com, and I just have to say a really big thank you. You’ve been so generous with your time today, Marshall. And it’s been an absolute pleasure to get to speak with you.
Marshall: No, thank you so much. I’ve had a blast. Everyone keep swinging and keep on enjoying the music, you know?