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Kate McGarry: The Turtle, The Paradox, and The Big Yes

By Published: May 21, 2007
KM: Church, shmurch—it always happened most strongly outside. And from that time, to me, the human voice calling out—in whatever form—felt like a connection to a larger body, and a larger body of which we were all part. That was my experience of it. And I started very young; my Mom says I was singing "Hello Dowee at sixteen months.

AAJ: Hello Dowee?

KM: Yes: "Hello, Dowee and "tiger up, fudders. I didn't know how to say whatever —"tie her up, fellers? That was my favorite song early on. I don't think I ever considered any other vocation.

AAJ: It sounds more like a calling than a career choice.

KM: Yeah. To my family, music was one of the healing arts. It was just as good as being a doctor.

AAJ: Except you can't listen to your doctor at three o'clock in the morning.

KM: Right.

AAJ: Is anyone else in your family a musician?

KM: My youngest brother, Eddie, is a wonderful songwriter, and a fireman. He lives in Boston and has three kids. He writes kind of folky songs about connection. My oldest brother was a professional musician who raised his family for quite some time singing in bars, singing covers and his own music. He's very creative. Now he and his family are living with my parents as the main caretaker for my father, who has advanced Parkinson's, and my mom, who's not able to get around at all. My other brother—we have three brothers and seven sisters—is an actor who's going to be on PBS on May 14 [2007]. He's in the Alexander Hamilton story [American Experience: Alexander Hamilton]; he plays the one who killed him, Aaron Burr. So the guys are the only ones who've done things in music, and though the others have sweet, sweet voices, they don't sing professionally. But whenever we get together, we usually end up singing.

AAJ: Back to history: you went to University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and you got your BA in African American music and jazz.

KM: At the time, in the late '80s, the degree was called Afro-American music and jazz. I'm so glad I could have this educational experience, because the focus was where it should be: historically, on the roots of the music in Africa, and its original beginnings as the slave trade came to America. How the music came out of the field songs and the legacy of horror and pain, the roots of jazz that are found in black sacred music. This is really where the whole tree is—from that came the blues and jazz.

AAJ: ...and rock and roll.

KM: Yes. It was about making sure people understood where it all was from. We got a lot of history, and I'm glad, because jazz education now is cut off at the neck: just learn the scales, blahblahblah. I was just invited to be part of the Manhattan School of Music, and I'm hoping to bring some of that to teaching. Cause it's missing the soul, you know?

AAJ: How do you teach soul?

KM: It's about listening. That's what jazz education is missing.

AAJ: I'm curious about the ashram thing—you spent 2 ½ years singing Indian sacred music. What's left of that experience in your music today?

KM: The main teacher at that ashram took an interest in the creative healing power of sound. Ann Hampton Calloway came and talked, she's part of the same group, and Kenny Werner—I think that's part of where he got his thing from.

AAJ: I brought it up because of something you told Hot House Magazine: "I spent most of my life as a seeker. Now I'm a finder.

KM: It's true. Once you look at what you have, it changes everything.

AAJ: The finder thing is when you permit yourself so see what you've gathered.

KM: Yes! Look at the damn harvest! Have some food!

AAJ: And speaking of spiritual food... Compared to all the cynical crap out there, your lyrics—" like "The Target and "She Always Will and my favorite, "Going In [from Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2005)] have so much substance and sincerity. That brings us back to paradox, since you're being profound and entertaining at the same time. It's not like sitting through some dreary lecture on the meaning of life—your philosophy rides in on wonderful music.

KM: Thank you!

AAJ: OK, here comes the inevitable Influences Question. I know you studied with Archie Shepp; you mention Fred Hersch as your big brother, so you've picked up stuff from him as well. I've also read that your main influences are Ricki Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell. They do sound like people you'd admire.

KM: Oh, sure. As much as James Taylor. The influences of the '70s, for me, started off with the singer-songwriters. But then, as my older brothers and sisters were growing up and bringing more music into the house, I was hearing funk, I was hearing George Duke and Stanley Clarke and Earth, Wind and Fire. Then there was this beautiful record of Al Jarreau's called Look to the Rainbow (Warner Bros., 1977)—that one got me through some hard times in adolescence.

AAJ: I think he was a social worker before he became famous as a singer.

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