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.

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Musical U interviews jazz master Marshall McDonald of the Count Basie Orchestra on "talent", the key to improvisation, and how to play like you're singing.



Wow! I could have happily talked with Marshall for hours. And I’m hoping we can tempt him back for a Part Two, or a masterclass for Musical U – because I think this is a man that can get you straight to the heart of what really matters in music.

I was particularly keen to pick Marshall’s brains on the subjects of learning jazz and learning to improvise. Because it’s one thing to hear a top jazz educator tell you their answers, but it’s quite another to have one of the best jazz musicians in the world tell you how they think about these things. I honestly didn’t know for sure what Marshall would say! But I was so happy to hear him say a few things really plainly:

Firstly: Apart from a few rare space aliens like Amadeus Mozart or Charlie Parker, the best musicians in the world didn’t get there through talent or a gift. They got there by working hard and being open to absorbing lessons from the best teachers and mentors they could find.

Secondly: When it comes to improvisation, it’s not magic. There is learning and preparation, in the sense that knowing music theory and transcribing or memorising licks or solos can give you a good foundation. But it mostly comes down to listening, and absorbing, and then equipping yourself with the knowledge and practice to translate what you want to say musically out into the real world.

Thirdly: it’s about fun! Don’t let those stories of 15 hour days of practice put you off. If the lead alto for the Count Basie Orchestra got there by pursuing his love of music and enjoying exploring and learning, then your own music learning certainly doesn’t have to be super dry, serious and rigid.

There were a ton of insights and ideas packed in there. I’ll recap some that stood out to me, but this is definitely an episode you might want to listen to more than once!

As a high school student he figured out for himself that the best way to write his solo was to sing it first. He had absorbed enough by ear to know what notes would sound good – and singing first let him capture that, write it down, and then he could play that on his sax.

That’s such an important point, I think. Not just because it reiterates what we say often on the podcast and inside Musical U, that your singing voice is an amazing tool for developing your musicality, whether you consider yourself “a singer” or not. But because it really captures the source of improvising that Marshall explained in this conversation. It’s not about starting from music theory and carefully using rules and logic to know what notes will sound good. There’s value in those rules and knowledge, and Marshall certainly talked about that, the studying and transcribing and learning scales and chords, and so on. But ultimately for improvisation to connect with the listener and be true to your voice as a musician it needs to come from inside first.

So it’s not that you’re always going to be singing something out before you can write it down and play it. It’s that singing is the quickest route to taking the music you imagine in your mind and bringing it out into the real world. In due course you can go straight to playing it on your instrument, and the theory and preparation can help a lot with finding the right notes with your fingers.

I loved Marshall’s exercise of alternating singing and playing each note of the scale, naming it by number. If you’ve been listening to the show for a while you’ll have recognised this as the “relative pitch” or “scale degree” system of understanding notes by ear, where you can use numbers or solfa names to give each note an identity, and that lets you translate the notes you imagine or sing into a particular key and onto notation or your instrument.

I also loved Marshall’s comment about pianists breathing between phrases. Even though they’re not literally singing as they play it’s clearly connecting to that same instinctive way of expressing music with our voice – and he really emphasised the importance of lyrical playing, or singing through your instrument. Because it’s possible to convey more emotion with just one note that you play like singing than with a fast flurry of a dozen that are played robotically.

A few times in the past when I’ve interviewed jazz educators here on the podcast I’ve asked them about this cultural thing where jazz is seen as super advanced, or intimidatingly complex. And although I didn’t ask Marshall that I did think his framing of it was wonderful: That jazz is music. It’s all music. And the best jazz musicians study classical, and pop, and rock. And that jazz was, and perhaps should be, all about dance. If the music doesn’t have that danceability to it, well, the audience might just walk out. That’s something the Count Basie Orchestra is known for, always making their performances dance-worthy, and that’s clearly a bit reason they’re so beloved by audiences when they perform live, or on recording.

I thought it was really interesting how Marshall recognises both the value of studying the greats and transcribing by ear and learning the jazz method – but also sees improvisation as an activity that’s absolutely accessible to beginners. His recommendation to start by creating variations on a melody, perhaps using your voice rather than an instrument, is a really neat way to help you connect with your potential for improvising, especially if you’re someone who’s been intimidated or overwhelmed by it in the past. And I hope you didn’t miss the bit where he said that it’s okay to make mistakes!

As I listened to Marshall talk about those incredible “space alien senseis” that may have a gift beyond our own but who we can still learn from and be inspired by – I couldn’t help but think that Marshall himself represents that to most musicians around the world! This is the man who’s played in a legendary jazz band for 20 years, many of those years playing lead, and who has worked with and learned from some of the best-known and most respected musicians of the last 50 years. And so to hear him say “Look, I wasn’t an effortless prodigy, and no musician I know was. We’ve all studied and worked and pursued our love of music to get this good” – well, I think that’s incredibly inspiring. And it really makes you wonder whether Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or even Mozart or Beethoven themselves might have said exactly the same thing.

I’ll reiterate what I said at the end of the conversation: that it’s somewhat mind-boggling to think that in this day and age if you want to study with or be mentored by the greatest musicians in the world, that’s actually often within reach. To take a single Skype lesson with a man like Marshall McDonald could transform how you approach learning music and as was clear from this conversation – he’s someone at the top of their game who can still explain things in a relatable way – and there should be zero intimidation factor, because he clearly has a real respect for the passionate amateur musician and what they can accomplish.

You can listen to Marshall’s music, read his blog posts and learn more about opportunities to study with him in person or online at his website

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