An Interview With Trombonist/Composer Paul McKee

Trombonist and composer Paul McKee may be best known for his playing with the Woody Herman Thundering Herd since 1984, but he has recorded and composed for a number of musicians, including Frank Mantooth, Brad Goode, and Jim Widner.  His critically acclaimed 2000 debut release as a leader, Gallery, features Paul as a writer as well as a trombonist.  Guest artists on Gallery include Bobby Shew on trumpet and the late, great Carl Fontana on trombone.

Paul has taught at DePaul University, Northern Illinois University, Youngstown State University, and University of Missouri – Kansas City.  He teaches now at Florida State University.

Back in 1993 I sat down with Paul and interviewed him as part of a class research project.  The interview was so much fun that when I recently came across it I asked Paul if I could make it available and share it.  With his permission, here is an interview with Paul McKee.

Could you briefly describe your educational background?

I completed high school in Indianola, Iowa, which is a small town of about ten thousand, and I went then to the University of Northern Iowa for my bachelor degree, which I received in Music Education.  Upon completing my Bachelor in Music Education, I sort of came to the conclusion that I wasn’t really interested in teaching high school, when I taught in Marshall Town, Iowa.  That experience was not particularly satisfying.  I distributed grapefruit to band parents and did a whole lot of other non-music kind of jobs that are involved in being a public school band director.  And so I decided, well, it’s off to grad school.  I selected the University of Texas in Austin, where I received an assistantship.  I knew some people down there and I wanted to go to a city where I could also have the possibility of playing gigs and working while I was going to school.  I got a Master’s degree in Composition at the University of Texas, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

What have you done since then?  Did you tour with Woody Herman right after grad school?

Yeah, over Christmas vacation in the end of ’83 I got called through a friend of a friend who was on the band.  They were looking for a trombone player and I got a call when I was home between semesters.  They wanted me to send a tape.  They selected players by soliciting six dozen tapes, however many they have that they want to get for a specific spot.  So I sent them a tape and shortly after that they called me and said that they wanted me to do the gig.  It was fortunate at least that I was in between semesters, so I had completed the course work pretty much for my classes.  So I took off from school and ended up going out for almost four years with Woody’s band.  We had a couple of breaks in the first couple years that I was on the band that I came back and completed my graduate work, ‘cause I knew that I’d better finish then or I’d procrastinate forever.  So I knocked that out and then I was able to spend some time on the road with Woody’s band.

Do you have any interesting stories about touring with Woody’s band?

It’s was funny, my idea of going on the road.  When I was in high school and junior high I used to go hear big bands.  I heard the Kenton band and Maynard’s band, Buddy Rich and Basie, Don Ellis, all these different big bands.  I sad, “Wow!  That’s great, this romantic jazz hermit, jazz nomad life on the road.  That’s what I want to do!”  As it was getting into the early to mid ‘80s I was looking at the attrition of the big bands, due to mostly economics of supporting that many musicians, and realized there won’t be many big bands left.  I was really in doubt when I got called to go on the road with Woody’s band.

As it turns out, it’s not exactly this glamorous road life that you envision it to be.  You spend a lot of time on the bus and you get to know other members of the band far better than you would ever want to.  I’m trying to think of something that comes to mind here that you can actually put in print.

I remember a couple of things just about Woody.  Woody at this point in his life, he was early seventies in age, was suffering.  His hands were very arthritic and he had a whole mouthful of false teeth, so the difficulty in playing his instrument was compromised by all those things.  He was not really at the level that I’m sure he wanted to be, playing-wise.  But I think the power and success he experienced were because he was a great leader.  He would pick musicians having the sound of the band in his head.  Not only him finding musicians, but the other guys in the band who found musicians, when we needed to fill a spot, that would fit in.  Consequently, the list of musicians who have gone through the band is like a who’s who list of a lot of great, great jazz people who have went on to have their own solo careers in jazz.  I think that was Woody’s real instrument.  He very much knew what he wanted to do, he was very intolerant of compromise.

I experienced this a couple of times.  People would come up at a gig and want to hear something made famous by another band.  For example, we were always getting requests for “In the Mood.”  Woody had a variety of responses to this sort of thing.  What would happen is that we’d be occasionally playing a variety of gigs.  Some would be concerts where we’d be up on a stage, and then we’d fill out our schedule with dances where we’d be on the floor at the same level as the audience.  The audience had access to Woody.  They would come right up to him, sometimes when he was playing or singing or talking, and start talking to him.   Clueless audience.  They would come up and say, “Play some Glenn Miller.”  One of Woody’s responses was (mimics voice), “When they find the plane I’ll play his music!”  That was always quite entertaining.

I remember this one guy came up and wanted to hear something that Woody didn’t want to play.  This guy was as bald as cue ball, this shining Telly Sevalis kind of head.  He was hassling Woody.  Woody of course has his microphone with him and his mic is always very strong, turned up really loud so he has god-like power when wants to say something.  So Woody just took his mic and bopped this guy on the head.  The sound of this mic hitting this bald, bone head, not hard, but the mic was turned up so loud it just went, “Boom!” when Woody socked him.  Woody burned a lot of bridges along the way (laughs).

There were a lot of places I’m sure we played once and never went back to because of Woody.  The thing was, all Woody cared about was the music.  He wanted the music to be good and he wanted the musicians to be happy.  If he stepped on some civilian’s toes along the way he really didn’t care.  He lived a long life.

Another quick story.  We were playing in an Elks Lodge in, I think, Illinois, Iowa.  A small, tiny, little town.  The Elks have a big moose head mounted on the wall, and I think at like eleven o’clock on a specific night they have the Hour of the Moose, or whatever.  Anyway, they turn out the lights and pay homage to the fallen mooses, or meese, whatever.  The room goes dark and they shine a spotlight on this moose.  On this particular gig we got to a little before eleven and they had us quit so they could prepare for this ceremony.  We were kind of waiting around and the room goes dark and they say something and the spotlight goes on the moose.  Of course at this point this moose bust that was on the wall had a pair of sunglasses and a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth.  Needless to say, the Elks Club members weren’t real pleased with that sort of behavior.  I’m sure we never played there again, but there’s other clubs, there’s other towns and we left the next morning.

It’s just dealing with the boredom of being on the road.  The thing I liked about the band the best was the playing.  When we’d get a chance to play our music, that was all we looked forward to every day.  Everything else in between got to be very tedious.  Sitting on the bus, checking into the hotel, trying to find a decent place to eat.  We found many ways of entertaining ourselves, not always thinking about the ramifications of our actions.  I think it’s pretty typical for some situation like that.

You’ve mentioned before that when you first went to college you were not a very technically proficient trombone player.  What was your motivation to put in all those hours of practice and develop your chops?

When I was in high school, specifically when I was in junior high, I was probably every band director’s worst nightmare.  I was a constant disturbance in band, I never practiced, I faked my little practice card times and everything.  When I was getting ready to head to high school, the junior high director had sent a list of the potential candidates for band and I was on the black list, like forget this guy.  He ain’t gonna make it.  I was about ready to bail on the whole music thing, I was into sports.  And then I got into high school and discovered the jazz band.

I had grown up with my father playing jazz records all the time.  Most of it was way over my head, but I grew up with that sound in my ears a lot.  When I heard the jazz band I got really interested and I wanted to play.  Of course, I was in no level to be able to play and so one of the high school trombone players sort of took me under his wing and we had intensive practice sessions of getting this music together.  I got just good enough to be able to be in the band.  After that I loved it so much I started practicing.  My priorities completely shifted from whatever else I was doing into music.

For two years, I think in ’74 and ’75, I went to the Stan Kenton summer music camp.  This was in Springfield, Missouri, during college.  Getting up-close and personal attention from the members of the Kenton band.  These guys were turning me on to different stuff.  That was the first time I heard Carl Fontana on tape and I started learning about theory, ‘cause I had been playing just by ear up to that point.  I just really got interested in learning the technical aspects of jazz.

I didn’t have much, I didn’t study privately in high school and my band director was an oboe player, not really versed in the brass teaching.  So when I got into college I had a lot of bad habits, a lot of tension, not much technical facility, but big ears and much desire to learn.  I was lucky to be able to hook up with a great, great private teacher who got my playing side of my music together, as far as dealing with my instrument and getting a good sound, playing relaxed, technical facility, that sort of thing.  And then the other students at school I hung out with to get that jazz thing.  I started listening to lots of music and playing in some better bands.

It just snowballed and I was really hungry to learn.  I had come out with some raw talent out of high school and realized that wasn’t going to get me very far, so I said I’ve got to get down and get some things together.  It was a long process.  It’s an ongoing process your whole life, improving on your instrument and such, but it was fun along the way so it wasn’t really all that frustrating.

Who are your major trombone influences?

Well, let’s see.  I went through a pretty logical progression of music when I was in high school.  I started listening to the horn bands that were on the  radio.  Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Jazz Crusaders, or just the Crusaders as they were eventually called, Tower of Power, bands that had horn players.  I played in some pop bands in high school that would try to transcribe things and play them.

Then I started getting into more specific jazz players.  I guess the first major influence was J.J. Johnson, which is probably the major influence for most people because he’s very accessible and melodic and pretty much exemplifies the jazz style on trombone.  So I listened to him.

Then I started listening to some other players and I would have to say that of my favorite trombone players, probably the two that come to mind immediately are Carl Fontana and Frank Rosolino.  There’s a lot of other great players that I enjoy listening to, Slide Hampton, Curtis Fuller Bill Watrous, Hal Crook.

The trombone is such a difficult instrument.  There haven’t been a whole lot of players dealing with it on a level that, to me, is real successful in controlling the instrument and being able to do so up along side saxophone and trumpet players.  I enjoy players that attempt to control the instrument, meaning playing real specific pitches and playing changes, as opposed to playing a lot of trombone effects.  Which are fine and can be used to an advantage in moderation, but to me I’d rather hear somebody manipulating chord changes.  The bebop thing, that’s where I came out of.

There’s not the great number of good trombone players compared to proportions of good saxophone and trumpet players because it’s such a hard instrument.  You see that it is exemplified in the high school and college bands.  There are just not many trombone players.  Not many people want to stick with it.  They realize it’s not an overly popular instrument, to say the least, and people want to play other instruments that are more visible, in the media and that sort of thing.  It’s definitely got dinosaur tendencies and I hope it doesn’t disappear.  The big band is what really keeps the trombone alive, so hopefully that will keep things going.

Who do you think out of the trombonists emerging today will come to be historically important?

Geez, I hope I’m one of them!  (laughs).

Some of the new guys that I’ve heard that I think are really doing a great job on the instrument, there’s a guy out in New York named Conrad Herwig.  There’s a guy who lives in Dallas now, and he’s not really very well known, but his name is Chris Sider.  He is an absolute monster on the instrument.  These are guys that haven’t recorded that much.

There’s some young guys that are getting a lot of attention that are good players.  Steve Turre, of course.  Robin Eubanks.  I guess we have to include Ray Anderson in there, ‘cause he’s doing some very unique things with the instrument and he’s approaching it in a completely different way.  He’s experiencing a lot of popularity with his style.  There’s some guys that are keeping it going, definitely.

Let’s do a “blindfold test.”

Paul was played just the trombone solos from several recorded examples.  He was not given any information about the recordings prior to listening.

1.  Jim Push, trombonist, from Goats in my Pocket, composed by Ed Palermo.  From the album, “The Pugh/Taylor Project” by Jim Pugh and Dave Taylor.

Robin Eubanks?

It’s not Robin Eubanks.

It’s not?  Uhh.

Hmm, that’s interesting.  Well, let’s see.  I’d have to venture a couple of guesses.  I really don’t know.  It could be Bruce Fawler?

No.

No?  OK.  I don’t think it’s Ray.  I had another peson in mind, who was I think of?  Glenn Ferks?

No.  Before I tell you, do you want to comment on the solo itself?

I was something fairly recent, groove-wise you could tell it was pretty modern.  There was a balance of some interesting technical things, he was going. . .  (sings).  Which is nice controlled stuff, and then some glissy, smear, growling kind of stuff.  I’m stumped.  You got me on that one.  Who is this?

Jim Pugh.

Oh, really?  That to me didn’t sound characteristically like Jim Pugh, ‘cause you hear him from his Woody days and he’s playing kind of the fuzzy, in the mic thing.  That’s much harsher playing than I’ve heard him do.  Interesting.

2.  Slide Hampton, trombonist.  Half Nelson, composed by Miles Davis.  From the album, “Art Farmer, Slide Hampton In Concert.”

That sounds like Slide.

Yep.

I can tell you why I though it was Slide.  For one thing, the way he tongues, the way his legato tonguing works. . . (sings).  And also his sound.  You can tell it’s a live tape and not really the recording of his sound, but he’s got that fat, big horn sound.  And he makes some elephant noises like that.  Is that from the live with Art Farmer?

3.  Phil Wilson, trombonist.  Blue Gardenia. From the album “That’s All” from the Phil Wilson Five.

Well, it’s one of two people.  Definitely Phil Wilson, Mr. Lip Slur.  I was going to say, just hearing the multiphonics in the beginning, either Mangseldorff or Watrous, and then I heard him start to play.  Also the way he sort of has a lazy, very relaxed kind of loose style.  But the mouthpiece buzz thing is definitely his trademark.  He does “Sleepy Time Down South.”  It’s really nice, he does some real nice, high, singing stuff.  I like Phil Wilson.  I haven’t heard much from him lately.

4.  Robin Eubanks, trombonist.  Evidently, from “Karma” by Robin Eubanks.

This I would say is probably Robin Eubanks.  Once again, the big sound.  He and Steve Turre play very similarly in a lot of ways.  It’s all sort of coming out of Slide Hampton, the big King 4B sound.

5.  Conrad Herwig, trombonist.  Quasi-Modal.  From “With Every Breath” by Conrad Herwig.

Conrad?

Yep.  That didn’t take long.

Conrad is just a wild man, that’s all there is to that!  He’s just crazy. . . (sings).

6.  J.J. Johnson, trombonist.  A Night in Tunisia, from “J.J. and Kai,” by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.

J.J.  What record is this?

J.J. and Kai.

The impulse record?  I’m so disappointed I missed one.  Jim Pugh, that was a good one.  That didn’t sound at all like Jim, like we’re used to hearing him.

I already asked you about trombone influences, what about composer and arranger influences?

Composers and arrangers, two separate things.  One of my favorite composers is probably Wayne Shorter.  Some of his tunes that were written in the late 50s sound like they just were written.  Very fresh, very interesting chord movements, great melodic ideas.

One of the things I did that got me together with technique on my instrument was playing Bird heads, the Bird Aebersold record.  I came home from school and I was working my old summer job.  I’d come home every night and I’d practice Donna Lee and Yardbird and Confirmation, Ornithology.  Definitely a positive ass-kicking, ‘cause it made me work and get my technique together.  I like Bird heads, especially because I think E flat tunes transpose well to the trombone range, for the most part.

Monk.  Monk is something of an acquired taste.  When I first heard Monk, when I was much, much younger, I thought this guy’s got no control or technique.  A lot of people think that.  Once you start listening to him, you realize what he’s doing, that he’s doing esactly what he wants to do.  I appreciate that.  I think Charles Minugs wrote some pretty interesting tunes.

Arrangers.  Trying to be a writer myself, I’m always checking out arrangers.  I’m really obsessed with that.  Probably Gil Evans would be number one for me.  The stuff he did with Miles, as well as his own projects, is absolutely fantastic.  Everything I try to write gives me real respect for what he does, the absolute mastery of orchestration.  When you look at some of the things he’s doing harmonically, all that dissonance.  Well, there’s two sides to that coin.  Sometimes harmonically it’s very, very simple, but the orchestration gives it a much more lush sound than you would think would be possible for a triad.  The other thing is sometimes he would take some dissonances that we would get flunked out of an arranging class for doing, but the way he orchestrates them makes them just kind of float by without being hard on the ear.

Thad Jones, fantastic, really original arranger.  Bill Holman.  Bob Brookmeyer.  Mintzer.  I like a lot of stuff Mintzer has done.  A lot of these guys, the arrangers, have done a lot of composing as well.  There’s so much.  I listen to a lot of classical music, too.  I learn from listening to classical stuff as well.

How is improvising and arranging similar to you?

I’ve explained this before as being two sides of the same coin.  If I had to pick either playing or my writing and arranging thing, I don’t know if I could do one without the other.  They’re both dealing with composition and arranging.  Composition because when you improvise you’re spontaneously creating, hopefully, melodic ideas over a given chord progression.  Playing is a lot like arranging too, because you’re also trying to select textures.  You decide maybe when you’re going to lay out, when you’re going to play a long note over a specific thing that’s happening in the rhythm section, or maybe you’re going to have the piano player cut out for a while or something.  So you’re sort of being a little bit of an arranger, but it’s all happening in a very spontaneous way.

As an arranger and composer, the paper end of it, you’re planning ahead to create an event that is hopefully going to inspire spontaneity.  When I write a chart, I’m trying to think ahead of what’s going to make this happen time after time and not just become a boring kind of arrangement.  It all deals with the same philosophies, but it’s just dealing with it in advance, as a writer, or at the moment, as a player.  They’re both equally satisfying.  And equally frustrating at times.

You’re stuck on a desert island with a CD player and you can only have ten CDs.

Ten CDs?  So I have to pick my ten favorite jazz recordings?  What I want to know is, do you have a whole truck load of batteries for the CD player?  Is there electricity?  Solar powered CD player?  I would be like the professor on Gilligan’s Island and turn it into a radio, signal for help.

Anyway.  I sort of have. . . Oh, boy!  Ten is actually hard.  I’ve asked this question to people and I try to get it down to five or so.  I could just name off the top of my head, but I’ll probably go back and change my mind.

Probably one of the records I advocate as being one of the greatest jazz records, to me, of all time is Miles’ Kind of Blue.  I think that’s pretty common for people.  I’ve worn out several copies of that on LP before I finally got it on CD.  Milestones, which is another album from that same period, is excellent.  I would definitely want at least one or two of the Gil Evans things with Miles, maybe Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess.  One of those, two of those.

Probably some Duke Ellington.  This may not come out to ten, but I’m just thinking of some.  Some Duke Ellington stuff.  I like the period from 1940 to 1960 as my personal interest.  I’d probably put some classical stuff in there too.  I’ve been listening to some Beethoven String Quartets.  Somebody said that Bach was the greatest bebop player ever.  When you think about the way that Bach pieces progress and the way he ‘runs the changes,’ as they say.

Stravinsky.  Debussy.  I try to have a mixed bag.  I think of my favorite records as the ones that I’ve heard a hundred times, but every time I hear them I hear something new.  Or you still get that feeling of awe at the way things are working.  Like on Kind of Blue.  It seems like I know every inch of that record, but I always hear something new in the way things fit together.  Just like listening to classical music, especially someone like Stravinsky.  You respect, once again, the orchestration skill.  I would try to pick a mixed bag of stuff.

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