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Mackenzie Leighton, busy bassist

Plenty of teaching to go along with the good gigs

Mackenzie Leighton has followed the classic bass player’s arc.
Mackenzie Leighton has followed the classic bass player’s arc.

Bassist Mackenzie Leighton’s presence on the San Diego jazz scene has grown exponentially over the past few years, to the point where he’s been able to land some very high profile gigs with Peter Sprague, Kamau Kenyatta, and Holly Hofmann. But curiously enough, Leighton didn’t start off as a bass player. “My first instrument was the trombone. That was my thing from 6th through 8th grade. In high school, I switched to the electric bass, and then to the acoustic when I was 15. It’s kind of the classic bass player arc. The stage band needs a bass player, and the director thinks you’d be a good fit.”

After high school, he studied with San Diego institution Bob Magnusson, but didn’t really come into his own as a player until he left dry land and hit the high seas. “From 2011 to 2014, I was out on various cruise ships. I think that was super important to my development as a musician. I’ve never been an obsessive practice person. To just sit and woodshed for several hours every day didn’t come naturally to me. But when I was working the ships, I did a gig that was five hours a night every day for months at a time. That was a great situation for logging lots of hours, getting my chops together, learning lots of songs on the fly, and playing with new people all the time. I was 22 and I literally had no bills, so the money was pretty good as I climbed through the ranks, so to speak.”

Leighton came back to town, enrolled at San Diego State, and got his master’s degree. This reconnected him with Magnusson. “I was more serious about music and a bit better than I was before. He was really generous; he hooked me up with Peter Sprague and Holly Hofmann and set me up with a lot of work.”

“A lot of work” is what defines the 33-year-old musician’s busy life these days. In addition to a boatload of sideman gigs, he’s currently got seven different teaching jobs. “Three of them involve coaching bass students at high schools in the Poway school district. This is for orchestra, classical music. I teach them the fundamentals, getting the proper technique down. I also got hired as the jazz band coach at the Coronado School of the Arts, which is where I went to high school. In addition to that, I also teach bass at Mira Costa and Palomar College. My main teaching gig, though, is at Cal State San Marcos, where I teach bass, Jazz Ensemble, and a History of Rock class. The high school and junior college gigs are centered around bass lessons, just getting the students used to playing in time and playing in tune. A lot of my students don’t have a background in reading music, so I try to get them up to speed doing that. I don’t do any private teaching, though. I prefer the rhythm of the school semester. We meet for 15 weeks, with the goal of a recital at the end, then take a break and do it all again.”

How hard is it to keep all of this organized? “It can be tricky to manage, but I have it set up so that I never leave the house to do just one job. Today, for instance, I’m going to coach at a school in Poway, then head to teach my class in San Marcos. When I’m doing the high school orchestras, it’s just for an hour, and they are all at different times of the day. It’s a lot of driving.”

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Mackenzie Leighton has followed the classic bass player’s arc.
Mackenzie Leighton has followed the classic bass player’s arc.

Bassist Mackenzie Leighton’s presence on the San Diego jazz scene has grown exponentially over the past few years, to the point where he’s been able to land some very high profile gigs with Peter Sprague, Kamau Kenyatta, and Holly Hofmann. But curiously enough, Leighton didn’t start off as a bass player. “My first instrument was the trombone. That was my thing from 6th through 8th grade. In high school, I switched to the electric bass, and then to the acoustic when I was 15. It’s kind of the classic bass player arc. The stage band needs a bass player, and the director thinks you’d be a good fit.”

After high school, he studied with San Diego institution Bob Magnusson, but didn’t really come into his own as a player until he left dry land and hit the high seas. “From 2011 to 2014, I was out on various cruise ships. I think that was super important to my development as a musician. I’ve never been an obsessive practice person. To just sit and woodshed for several hours every day didn’t come naturally to me. But when I was working the ships, I did a gig that was five hours a night every day for months at a time. That was a great situation for logging lots of hours, getting my chops together, learning lots of songs on the fly, and playing with new people all the time. I was 22 and I literally had no bills, so the money was pretty good as I climbed through the ranks, so to speak.”

Leighton came back to town, enrolled at San Diego State, and got his master’s degree. This reconnected him with Magnusson. “I was more serious about music and a bit better than I was before. He was really generous; he hooked me up with Peter Sprague and Holly Hofmann and set me up with a lot of work.”

“A lot of work” is what defines the 33-year-old musician’s busy life these days. In addition to a boatload of sideman gigs, he’s currently got seven different teaching jobs. “Three of them involve coaching bass students at high schools in the Poway school district. This is for orchestra, classical music. I teach them the fundamentals, getting the proper technique down. I also got hired as the jazz band coach at the Coronado School of the Arts, which is where I went to high school. In addition to that, I also teach bass at Mira Costa and Palomar College. My main teaching gig, though, is at Cal State San Marcos, where I teach bass, Jazz Ensemble, and a History of Rock class. The high school and junior college gigs are centered around bass lessons, just getting the students used to playing in time and playing in tune. A lot of my students don’t have a background in reading music, so I try to get them up to speed doing that. I don’t do any private teaching, though. I prefer the rhythm of the school semester. We meet for 15 weeks, with the goal of a recital at the end, then take a break and do it all again.”

How hard is it to keep all of this organized? “It can be tricky to manage, but I have it set up so that I never leave the house to do just one job. Today, for instance, I’m going to coach at a school in Poway, then head to teach my class in San Marcos. When I’m doing the high school orchestras, it’s just for an hour, and they are all at different times of the day. It’s a lot of driving.”

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