Published: March 20, 2024 By

Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Paul McKee (center) at the inaugural Paul McKee Jazz Festival!Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Paul McKee (center) at the inaugural Paul McKee Jazz Festival!
For Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Paul McKee, it doesn’t seem all that long ago that he was playing a gig with a small combo at yet another wedding. Around him were a handful of bored players, earning another paycheck. “But regardless of whether it’s a rehearsal or a gig, it’s important to always put forth your best effort,” says the trombonist and composer/arranger extraordinaire. “That’s what I told the kids at Indianola last month: ‘You’ve got to play full power all the time. Give it 100% effort.’” 

McKee was referring to his recent visit to Indianola High School: On Feb. 17, his high school alma mater inaugurated the Paul McKee Jazz Festival, rebranded in tribute to an illustrious alumnus. “It’s a huge honor and a big event,” he explains. “Forty bands competed in the festival—from middle school to high school. 

“Next year, I’m going to write a piece for the Indianola High School Jazz Band—and maybe come back and play something.” This year, McKee served as a guest judge.

 Indianola High School Band.McKee speaks with the Indianola High School Wind Ensemble sharing stories and life advice.
Photo courtesy: Indianola High School Band

Being recognized in this way invites reflection on an unusual life in music—one in which McKee nimbly juggles academics with exciting experiences in jazz performance including a stint with the legendary Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd. 

“I always wanted to play,” he says. “But I felt that getting a college degree would be a wise choice, so I earned music education and composition degrees. I later had the opportunity to send an audition tape to the Woody Herman band. That was in 1984. 

“I had sought out opportunities to go out on the road—so when they brought me on board, I was ecstatic. It was one of the big deals of my lifetime.” 

McKee’s years as a traveling musician still serve as a valuable experience to share with his students. “I always strive to teach by example,” he points out. “I give them the ball and let them run with it.”

On May 9, McKee’s impact will extend beyond the classroom to the university commencement ceremony at Folsom Field stadium, premiering his new arrangement of the familiar theme from Sir Edward Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 In D (1901), performed and recorded by students in the college’s Thompson Jazz Studies Program. “It’s a contemporary arrangement in three parts capturing the diversity of our graduates and our campus community,” explains McKee. “You’ll hear a big band rendition of the march, then in the Latin montuno style and finally in the New Orleans style that should lighten things up for everybody.”

This eclectic musical mix both mirrors McKee’s approach to life and the lessons he imparts in his teaching, and reflects the College of Music’s universal musician mission: “The more skills you have, the stronger a candidate you are for finding interesting, interdisciplinary work,” he says. “That’s what I reinforce in mentoring my students. I encourage them to build on what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned and what they know, and to understand how much they have to offer.”