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Curtain Call: Max McKee is a bandsman through and through for 60 years

American Band College founder Max McKee conducts the opening online session of the virtual ABC in 2020 with 200 students from about 40 states and several foreign countries. In 2022, ABC will be back in Ashland, live. Courtesy photo.

Max McKee might tell you the success in his musical life was due in part to of a string of good luck: being raised by music teacher parents, marrying the right woman, and 40 years of great advice from his father-in-law.

Closer inspection would reveal that Max McKee made a lot of his own luck — listening and learning, willingly tackling challenges, and hard work.

McKee, 79, is the founder and executive director of American Band College (ABC), a three-year master’s degree program for band directors with a yearly enrollment of more than 200 from around the world. Before that, he was director of bands at Southern Oregon College (now University).

What about that string of good luck?

He was born in Aberdeen, Washington, where his father was the band director.

His mother was a church organist and pianist who taught privately. Music is in his DNA.

McKee’s wife, Nell, has been integral to the success of ABC. It was her idea to build an endowment, the earnings of which allowed ABC to hire three full-time people and helped the organization survive a million-dollar turnaround during the financial hit of COVID.

The father-in-law, the late Randall Spicer, was director of bands at Washington State University, where McKee earned three music degrees. When McKee participated in a regional solo and ensemble contest, the judge was Spicer, who offered him a music scholarship to WSU in clarinet performance. He took it.

That was a double bit of luck, of course—meeting and marrying Spicer’s daughter, and gaining another mentor in the family.

After McKee was hired in Ashland, Spicer visited a couple times a year and sat in on rehearsals. Afterwards, McKee would ask if he had any suggestions. Spicer would usually say, well, not really, start walking away, then pull a “Columbo” after three steps.

“He’d stop, turn and say, ‘There is one thing.’ And it was always about a five-word gem. Over the years, 42 in all, I ingested hundreds of life skills from Randall Spicer,” McKee said. “Lucky me!”

But, as noted earlier, it was McKee’s ambition, focus, and facing challenges head on that made the difference.

“As an eighth grader, I went to the regional solo and ensemble festival where I played a clarinet solo,” McKee recalled. “My father was a good friend of the contest judge, who asked him if his son could take some heat.

“My dad said, yes, no problem. When I went to the judge’s table, he said to me: ‘Son, that is the worst clarinet playing I’ve ever heard. I suggest you start taking lessons or do something else.’”

Devastated — for about 10 seconds — McKee asked his dad on the way out about taking lessons.

“He lined me up with one of the finest clarinet teachers in the state in a town about eight miles from where we lived.”

His dad and mom later took him to a Colorado music camp where McKee was placed in last chair of the clarinet section of the third band.

Loving the experience, he went all in on the lessons and by Christmas break had challenged his way from last to first chair clarinet in the junior high band. It was step one in the process of his becoming a good musician.

While McKee was at Washington State, Spicer asked him what he was going to be as a musician. It was his version of, “How do you expect to support my daughter?”

“I told him I intended to be a professional clarinet player,” McKee said. “When he asked how many hours a day I was practicing, I said two. He said, ‘Try seven hours, seven days a week and you’ll have a chance.’”

So, for the next three years he did that and became a really good clarinet player.

As graduation approached, his father-in-law asked him where he thought he’d apply for a job. It would likely be a symphony orchestra position, McKee told him.

Spicer then went on to remind McKee there were only two clarinetists in a symphony orchestra, and that the principal clarinetist with the Seattle Symphony had held the position for 50 years.

Points taken.

“Then and there I decided that the odds were not good to raise his daughter’s family as a professional clarinet player,” McKee said.

Getting the job at the then Southern Oregon College was a fluke of sorts.

“During my master’s degree years (1965-67) at WSU, I became the first master’s teaching assistant and director of the marching band,” he said. “On the day of my final outdoor rehearsal prior to the ‘civil war’ football game with the University of Washington, the director of bands from Southern Oregon College,

Herb Cecil, was on the WSU campus for a meeting. He asked my father-in-law if he knew of some capable WSU graduate who could come to SOC and start a marching band.”

Ever the booster of his daughter’s husband, Spicer told Cecil to go down to the field and watch the rehearsal, telling him his son-in-law was in charge and that he thought he’d find just what he needed.

“Later that day I was offered the job,” McKee said.

The day the McKees arrived in Ashland, Cecil helped them move into the house they’d rented and told them the news that he’d been hired by Weber State in Ogden, Utah, leaving the SOC director of bands position open.

When there was a problem with the search committee’s number one candidate, before they could call the number two candidate, McKee said he’d like to give it a try.

McKee got the job. He became director of bands, director of the new marching band, and taught woodwind lessons and music appreciation. Over the next 27 years, he taught nearly every aspect of study in the department

“I also was hired as conductor of the Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra, which I did for two years,” he said. “But I always returned to my roots: concert band, marching band, jazz ensemble and pep band.”

In 1983 he started a class called Band Director Prep.

“It grew like a weed and by 1988 I had structured a 12-course undergrad curriculum called the American Band College,” he said. “In 1989 we started the ABC summer workshop for band directors, using my undergrads as staff. By 1992 it became a master’s degree program that grew from three candidates that year to more than 200 since the year 2000.”

There are now more than 1200 ABC graduates from 49 states and 15 foreign countries.

When the depth of running ABC and the regular curriculum as director of bands began to overwhelm him, he approached the college president about getting some relief.

“When he asked me what I wanted to do, I facetiously told him I’d like to go home and work full-time to develop ABC,” McKee said. The president gave his blessing and McKee did just that, also completing the last three years of his 30-year tenure with the college, officially retiring in 1997.

In the ensuing three decades, McKee developed and grew ABC, launched Bandworld Magazine, and helped establish the Western International Band Clinic.

McKee’s son, Scott, came on staff after graduating from high school in 1990 and learned the ins and outs of ABC, working alongside his father. He assumed the full-time position of managing director for ABC and organizing chairman for WIBC in 2002, and was appointed CEO of both entities and the magazine in 2015.

He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education, and taught for many years in Oregon public schools.

McKee found immense satisfaction in a career where he had the freedom to be completely creative, and in a job where he prepared hundreds of bandsmen “to be good human beings” as well as good musicians.

One of the many highlights of his college career was taking the band on tour to do children’s programs — raising funds to support the effort, developing special content, and introducing kids to the joys of band music.

“I did children’s programs for 17 years and wish I could have done 17 more,” he said.

These days, he’s not on the front line at ABC but involved and supportive. He and Nell do a lot of traveling around the world. In the process, they often line up guest performers for the annual ABC concerts in Ashland and Medford around the Fourth of July.

Last week, McKee and his wife flew to Chicago for an ABC meeting. One doesn’t give up a 60-year passion easily.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.