Marlin McKay at McMurry’s 2022 Jazz Day

Issue 4: April 6, 2022

On March 25 and 26, the Department of Music hosted a weekend of jazz featuring guest musician Marlin McKay. Music students and jazz enthusiasts outside of McMurry attended workshops led by Marlin McKay, learning the basic rules of jazz improvisation and what it’s like being a jazz musician today.

Marlin McKay is a recording artist, member of Lou Orleans Brass Band, and Director of Bands at Georgetown College in Lexington, Kentucky and performs all across the United States. David Amlung, chair of the Department of Music, met McKay while studying music at Indiana University.

McKay led two workshops on Saturday, “The ABC’s of Improvisation,” and “Making the Changes.” Whilst sitting in the audience during the “Making the Changes” workshop, it was amazing seeing all the thought and technique that create the unique jazz sound. Some misconceptions of jazz are that it is merely random noise, however, Marlin McKay says that music “like the universe is endless and balanced.”

McKay taught a derivative approach to jazz improvisation. McKay explained, “The idea [of starting with sheet music and basic scales is] that we have something that we want to play, right? And that takes away the mystery. Oftentimes… when we go to play a solo… all the possibilities are there, right? And that’s very intimidating.”

McKay simplified the open-endedness of jazz improv into three parts—the ABCs of jazz: statement material, linking material, and a signature. By making intentional choices about what beats to play and which to rest, the music takes on an organic, conversational sound with peaks, valleys, and pauses. “Jazz is like a language,” McKay says.

It was impressive seeing some of the workshop students, some of whom have never played jazz before, get out of their comfort zone and improvise in front of the group. “Play strong and wrong. Loud and proud!” McKay said. Even though they started with basic chords and scales, by following along with McKay’s techniques and choosing when to play, rest, and deviate from the sheet music, the jazz sound came through! Some more seasoned jazz players returned to basics and made their solo more structured and complete as a result. It was a warm atmosphere of learning and growth.

“[The workshop] was pretty fun,” said Kye Pyeatt, a music student at McMurry, “It’s good to have an expert in jazz come along and teach us some new stuff… I learned more about how to go about which scales to link it all together.”

McKay encourages musicians to continue developing their musical skills. Like a baby learns language from their parents, modeling their sound and style of speaking, musicians develop their own sound by emulating other musicians’ styles and sounds. McKay recommended that students follow along with artists they want to sound like; having a “sound model” he calls it. With the amount of resources available to musicians today, it is easier than ever before to develop an ear for music; it all comes down to drive. “What is in you that drives you to pursue what you want?” McKay asks.

Towards the end of the workshop, McKay talked about the entrepreneurial aspect of being a musician. “I have to go out and find my work,” McKay said, “Pay my own insurance… Things are changing to respect the folks that don’t have the normal nine-to-five grind… It’s getting there.” Through teaching music lessons, playing gigs, and playing accompaniment, a musician can find work. “Life is what you make it,” McKay continued, “And you need to have a plan. Set goals for yourself, short term goals, long-term goals, and then write it down. Set the goal. Change the plan but never the goal.”

The closing concert performed by the McM Jazz band and Marlin McKay was beautiful, lively, and fun. They exposed the Abilene audience to big band, combo, and New Orleans brass band music. Some songs were even composed by McKay himself! You could tell the musicians were having fun with each other as they winked, nodded, and smiled at one another during their performance. It was collaborative and dynamic. The room was alive and energetic, and the audience felt as much a part of the musical experience with the performers. If you haven’t exposed yourself to the dynamic world of jazz, I highly recommend listening to Marlin McKay’s music on Spotify or YouTube. It’s an experience you shouldn’t miss.