June 14, 2024

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Interview with Marshall McDonald: Music should always touch the heart, move the soul, have a story to tell: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist and composer Marshall McDonald. A interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Marshall McDonald: – I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my father was an Oral Surgeon who taught at University of Pittsburgh, and in 1965 we moved to a middle class suburb called Fox Chapel, we were the first Black family to live in that community. My father played piano, and loved Classical music, my brother was 8 years my elder, and was a child trumpet protégé in Classical music. I used to hear my brother practice the Haydn and Vivaldi concerto, and at age 9 at school, I wanted to play oboe. The Director suggested that I play clarinet instead, because if I learned clarinet, I could then easily move to learn the other woodwinds. He was right, it really helped later!

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophon?

MM: – I was playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto by age 12, my first clarinet teacher was at Carnegie Mellon University in 1969, Thomas Thompson, principal Clarinetist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, then I continued with William Balawadjer on clarinet throughout my schooling. My Dad used to drive my brother and me to the University every Saturday for our lessons, I remember climbing these steps into the old music building, college students everywhere. There was something I really liked about it, felt a little special. I could hear people practicing, I can still hear and see it in my mind, man what a time.

In 8th grade, I found one of my father’s 8 track tapes, anyone remember those? A tape of Louis Armstrong, it was the “Hello Dolly” recording, and I fell in love with it! There was a clarinet player on there, Barney Bigard, I thought it was the most amazing music! It knocked me out, I loved it! My mother secretly loved jazz so she found me a Pete Fountain record and I listened to that also. I told my father I wanted to learn saxophone so I could join the Stage (Jazz) Band in High School, and although he didn’t like saxophone, he likened it to a foghorn, he bought me a saxophone to start to practice! My teacher showed me the similar fingerings. My teacher was a classical clarinetist, and honestly couldn’t tell me much about jazz. Once a guest from college came to the high school, I had a solo on Malaguena, and he told me I need to know chords and have something to play on a jazz solo and showed me a triplet chordal pattern which I memorized. He also told me about David Sanborn, and I bought his records, I loved Sanborn. In addition I was listening to pop music, you know Beatles and all that, the original Sgt Pepper’s recording and Jimi Hendrix Trio, “Manic Depression”, all that. And later in the band library I found Charlie Parker “Live at Massey Hall”, and each night while I lay in bed, I put that record on and fell asleep to it!

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

MM: – A beautiful sound is everything! I’ve worked very hard on my sound, from the years of classical studies, etudes, concertos, and my brother’s words “your sound is everything”, it has been a serious study for me. It might surprise people to know I was a math/science nerd in high school, headed for college to be a pre-med major! It wasn’t until later that I learned that math and music go hand in hand. Playing clarinet teaches a discipline of sound and breath control. Years ago, all saxophone players learned clarinet, and many first, Artie Shaw, Arnold Brilhart, Marshal Royal, Benny Carter, Phil Woods, just to name a handful. The clarinet embouchure and air stream are very disciplined compared to what many people do on the saxophone. All of my teachers, and the many mentors I had helped me with my sound. Several stand out though. First, my mother, who bought me my Buffet R13 clarinet in high school, met Nestor Koval at Duquesne University, and said you must meet my son! Nestor was the first American to graduate from the Paris Conservatorie, and was a clarinet master, and his lessons on embouchure, breath control, and air stream, for both clarinet and saxophone have been a keystone to my sound. Next, Nathan Davis at University of Pittsburgh, I was a Jazz Major there for 2 years after Pre-med at Lafayette College, told me to relax my embouchure, puff my cheeks a little, and get the reed to vibrate like a jazz player. And in my 30’s I began studies with Joe Allard Protégé, David Tofani of New York City, and he taught me the basis of the Allard technique which honestly, made my sound what it is today! I’m known for my ability to produce a good sound on all four saxophones, and those cats, are the reason why! And Tofani opened up that reed for me, he changed my life, and I teach all my students about sound. Sound is EVERYTHING! It should be beautiful, not harsh and ugly! Now for the Basie Orchestra, playing Lead alto for all those years, I was a member of the band for 18 years, I wanted to keep the sound of Marshal Royal alive in the band, many people have only begun to associate me with that, but since I was in high school, I listened to Basie. Marshal Royal had a beautiful, syrupy sound, with lots of vibrato, it changed Lead playing forever, and his sound and style became a signature for the band. I sat beside Danny Turner, Kenny Hing and John Williams at first. Danny explained how the Lead alto sound was passed down from Marshal onward. I very much focused on my sound being round, beautiful, singing style for the Basie band. But when I get in my small group I keep my post-bop roots right there.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

MM: – Transcribing solos has always been the basis for me since college, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins. My most influential jazz teacher was George Coleman whom I spent several years studying with, who showed me how to practice and how to play over chord changes with precision. Rhythmically? A cat just told me about Jerry Bergonzi’s method of starting on different parts of the beat, and it reminded me what Dr. Nathan Davis told me years ago: You have to play the drums on the saxophone. Gotta make that bebop rhythm. Who’s a master of that? Charlie Parker, to me, he’s the root of ALL modern jazz. Who took Bird, and ran? Sonny Rollins, Sonny is one of most interesting players rhythmically of all. So for me, it’s a combo of thinking and not thinking, I believe in the intuition, and learning to allow both halves of the brain to connect. Music should reach people, and not sound like an exercise. Jazz takes a tremendous amount of study, and I’ve written out patterns, and jazz choruses that I transposed to all 12 keys, and it is that method that I teach my Skype students and personal students. Gotta learn to hear man, gotta learn to hear.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

MM: – Good question! I was coming along about 1979 just at the beginning of the back to Bebop (the start of the Marsalis era, the return to tradition). I became an odd ball, (I was going retro, back to bebop, which later turned out to be THE movement!) at that time my main horn was alto, so I loved Charlie Parker, Jackie Mclean, Arthur Blythe, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, Michael Brecker and David Sanborn! At first I was really focused on “outside” playing, but the more I got into Bird, the more bebop began to fascinate my ear. In ’86, I was trying to play really modern, but honestly I didn’t know everything I was doing, so I took lessons with Joe Lovano, Bob Mintzer, Lee Konitz and then George Coleman. Each of them explained you can’t play OUTSIDE until you master INSIDE, and pointed out John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy’s mastery of chordal harmony. In my own group I take more liberties with harmonic substitutions, but I do learn towards harmonic development based on melody, and the tradition. I love all of the music, Dave Liebman was playing some amazing post-Trane stuff in 1980, and Brecker, Bob Berg and Grossman, I’ve spent some time writing out their solos, if you really listen to Berg and Grossman they play far more inside than one would think. I had several conversations with Michael Brecker, he changed my practice habits, and he loved Stan Getz as I do! I think when you say dissonance, you may refer more to playing outside of the chord, possibly like Kenny Garrett or Steve Wilson, and I lean more towards to what Joe Lovano is doing, he applies dissonance outside of the chord, yet his roots are in the melodic intervals coming from Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. And I lean that way also.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

MM: – Nothing, I think you can grab something from everything, and find a way to twist it. I’m not sure what disparate influences would be, yet if you hear a music or someone’s playing that you don’t want to sound like, then just decide you don’t want to sound like that! Ya gotta play what you hear in your head, play what you sing, so it sounds real. I can go completely outside actually since I spent years listening to Late Coltrane, sometimes it surprises people! As Kenny Hing, (30 year Basie solo tenor), told me ‘if I heard something I like, I will steal it!’ I love rock and roll, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Weather Report, pop music, classical music, and as I spend more time with my own band now, Marshall McDonald Jazz Project, performing in Tokyo, and the USA, I’m finding more freedom again to break away from the Basie sound and big band model. On my new CD, there is a song I wrote called Samejima Style, which gives a clear nod to Pharoah Sanders, whom in those crazy 80’s I spent some time listening to! I think disparate influences might be good for the music! (:

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MM: – Music should always touch the heart, move the soul, have a story to tell. The lyrics of a song are usually a love story, I love the words of tunes. You can hear Miles playing the words as he plays a melody. We have to have intellect, music is very much a craft, playing your instrument, studying harmony, progressions, and arrangements. A five to ten year process of learning to play. Yet music should not be a science project, you want to touch the audience, the listener, move their heart. Music has been part of the human DNA since we first heard the birds sing, it is used for dance, communication and spiritual reasons. Music is a healing between ourselves and the cosmos. I have a tune that I wrote, it’s called All That Is, that is everything that IS in the universe, The Creator, there is nothing else. Music is a conduit to that truth.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

MM: – That’s a loaded question. Of course music is entertainment, and we respect the audience, yet as an artist if you create a new music and present it to the people, they most of the time decide that is what they want, if they like it. The music industry today is more about selling hit singles, and re-producing the same song over and over, and jazz is very much now a bit of a competition sport now. “Higher, louder, faster”. Let’s take Miles Davis, his recording of “It Never Entered My Mind”, it’s a classic now, it’s a story, Miles plays the melody in a way which is uniquely his style, many times complex music is beyond what the audience wants; they work hard all week, work hard for the money, they don’t’ want music to lecture at them when they spend their $30-$100. When I was with Lionel Hampton, I learned the mix of virtuosity along with being entertaining. If you perform honestly, and from your heart, the people end up wanting what you give.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

MM: – Man, I’ve been blessed to play during the last 30 years with Lionel Hampton, Paquito D’Rivera, Chico O’Farrill, Duke Ellington, Charli Persip, Illinois Jacquet, to name a few, and most of all, the long time that I spent with The Count Basie Orchestra! I have too many stories! I’ve had so many mentors, and funny stories, I’ve met and played with the Jazz greats, and I’ve learned from all of them. With Lionel, the first time I ever went to Europe, we went to Sweden, I was on baritone sax, we arrived at what was called The Castle, where the promoter always had the band stay, and the first night, Freddie Cole was there! And then we had a jam session, my first evening in Stockholm, I’m playing tunes with Freddie Cole! We talked to him a lot, and over the years have seen him time and time again. Got to play in Nice at an after jam session with Herbie Hancock, and hung at the bar a minute with him, and he had such positive energy. I met Eddie Harris while with Lionel in Germany and he told me how he prefers smaller mouthpiece tip openings, which actually helped me develop my relationship with my mouthpieces. I learned that the greatest Jazz masters, were always kind, humble and willing to share. That’s my biggest story.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

MM: – We need to keep the dance and soul in the music. We’ve lost that, it’s become concert music, and highly intellectual. It’s not just the 50 year old standards, it’s that the music is not reaching people in the gut. Like Miles said on 60 Minutes, years ago when asked will he play tunes he did in the 50’s, he said, ‘we play a melody, I take a solo, everyone takes a solo, and then we play the melody again-that’s some boring shit.’ Yeah well, I get that. Gotta bring the joy to the people.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

MM: – I think I touched upon that above, when we play music we should understand that it is coming from within us, not just learning the correct notes to play; study is a tool, but the music is a spiritual communication. How do I understand the spirit and life? Who knows man, that’s everyone’s search, but we need to find some truth, the world today teeters once again on the edge.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

MM: – I would like people to pay musicians a living wage, and to appreciate the time it takes to become a musician, the average jazz musician in the US makes only $20,000 a year, yet music is used everywhere in the world. It’s tragic that some societies don’t value their artists, I would like to change that.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

MM: – I listen mostly to The Eagles, and the Beatles these days, I’ve been playing Hotel California over and over, Desparado, and I’ve always loved the Beatles. When I practice I study a track of music, let’s say, Giant Steps. Bob Mintzer sent me his wonderful arrangement for Giant Steps, so I play along with that track, and study it. Most times I don’t listen to jazz much now. I enjoy Mozart, Debussy, I mix it up.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

MM: – I’d like to go to a place where we all get along, and we take care of each other, and realize that there is enough for everyone, and try to evolve to a higher being, where we all work as a collective for the higher good. Can you take me there?

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

MM: – What are your 3 most favorite recorded songs?

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. Lonely Woman, So What, Moanin …!

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

MM: – It’s always a search, an artist should respect their gift. We need to get along, and remember that we are on a journey. Thank you for allowing me to share some of my thoughts.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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