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Jazz Festival at McPherson College Showcases Outstanding Student Musicians

When a high-caliber jazz musician asked Paxton Leaf to come on stage to improvise with him, one thought flashed through his mind.

“Don’t screw up,” Leaf thought.

The senior at McPherson High School didn’t need to worry. At the third annual McPherson College Jazz Festival on Nov. 3, the young trumpet player held his own playing with Doug Talley – a professional saxophonist from Kansas City who leads the Doug Talley Quartet.

“Honestly, being able to play with someone as talented as Doug Talley, that was a once in a lifetime experience,” Leaf said. “I love what the McPherson College Jazz Festival has come to be. It’s an experience that sticks with you.”

The quartet kicked off the annual festival the evening before on Nov. 2 with a special concert at the McPherson Opera House. Then on Thursday, more than 400 student jazz musicians came to the MC campus for the festival. The students ranged in age from middle school to college and represented 20 bands from 18 different area schools.

In addition to their performances, the students also got to learn in one of two clinics – either in improvisation or rhythm section – from the professional musicians in the Doug Talley Quartet.

In the improv clinic, Talley taught students how to “steal” musical ideas from other players in a jam session, figure out the base chord of those ideas and improvise on them, and finally how to adapt those improvisations to different keys.

After calling on Leaf as a volunteer to help demonstrate the principles, Talley introduced a simple three-note phrase for Leaf to repeat. Then they took turns improvising on it across different keys. It was a simple musical idea, Talley said, but improvisation doesn’t need to be complicated.

“Those are only three notes,” he said. “Yeah, but you only start talking with one word.”

After Leaf demonstrated that he had some true chops, Talley and Leaf went into a more extended improvisation session. Then they took questions from the students in the audience, and one asked whether either of them had just wanted to give up on jazz. Both confessed to frustrations at times.

“There have definitely been times I wanted to throw my instrument across the room because it’s just not responding right,” Leaf said.

Talley said it’s a natural feeling.

“If you don’t have some highs and lows,” he said, “you’re just not human.”

At the same time, they encouraged the students to persevere and find the rewards at the end.

Talley said he was impressed both with Leaf and the festival as a whole.

“It’s providing opportunities for kids to play and try out their skills at a time of year when there aren’t a lot of other options,” Talley said.

Kyle Hopkins, band director and associate professor of music, started the festival in 2013, largely for that purpose – giving students valuable experience where none had existed in the area before. He enjoyed seeing how far the festival has come.

“The groups have been playing fantastically and the clinics have been phenomenal,” Hopkins said. “It’s bigger. We’re bringing in big-name artists and getting the community and alumni more involved.”

Student groups performing at the festival this year were: Lakewood Middle School (Salina, Kan. – two groups); Sterling Middle School; Sterling High School, Central High School Concert Jazz (Salina); Central High School Symphony Jazz (Salina); Newton High School; Hesston High School; McPherson Middle School; McPherson High School; McPherson College; Goddard High School; Wichita South High School; Chapman Middle School; Chapman High School; Nickerson High School; Abilene High School; Larned High School; and Fort Riley Middle School.