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Chris McNulty: A Global Voice

By Published: March 28, 2008

AAJ: How decisive was for your career the International Study Grant you were awarded from the Australia Council in the '80s?

CM: Well I guess, if you look at in dollars it wasn't substantial. Acting on it changed my life. When I received word that I had been awarded a grant, I was excited but also ambivalent. I'd just bought a house with very little personal savings and large bank loan. My son was only six years of age.

To leave that all behind and consider taking my son from an idyllic setting in Sydney was a tough decision even if was initially only meant to be three months. It was disruptive and challenging and when I look back it must have also been traumatic. How was I going to be able to pursue my career without a support network in place? How quickly was I going to be able to create a safe and secure environment for my son.

It was a difficult decision. I made it knowing there were going to be some positive and negative repercussions. Six months later, I packed our bags and arrived in NYC on frigid early spring evening in March 1988. I had no way of knowing then that those three months would turn into 20 years. I was offered a record deal and after more trepidation took another huge gamble and chose to stay. I recorded six months after I arrived. The decision to stay brought many challenges. I came from a country that had national health care and free education; so many things were not similar.

AAJ: What surprised you most?

CM: I thought we were coming to the centre of the universe, the melting pot, the hippest place on the planet, where all colors and creeds got along, but as is turned out we found the whole environment to a lot more polarized, especially between black and white and then there was the Giuliani period.

Raising a child of color, a son, was really tough not only for my son, but also for me and I guess for a whole bunch of people. There were times when I found it extremely difficult to juggle the dual roles of single parenting, while doing two and three day gigs and maintaining my focus and identity as a jazz musician, recording and finding work as a performer. My kid came first, always.

AAJ: Did you ever think you should give up?

CM:The tough thing was not to give up, and I never did, not for one day or one week in the entire time. Holding fast to the identity I had at 16 years of age proved to be the hardest task of all. I always knew that this was what I did, and in a way it has been the thread that has connected me through the journeys, and there have been many. So my identity as a jazz musician, defines who I am more than anything else.

AAJ: What was the real impact of being in NYC?

CM: There's nothing like New York. You have access to the greatest players on the planet. It's had an immeasurable affect on my growth and maturity as a creative musician. I must say though, I do miss the New York that I arrived to in the late '80s. Everything has changed, but in a way not much has, we still struggle to make things happen.

AAJ: It's not an easy way work...

The life of the jazz musician often feels like a labor of love for most of us. It's a career choice made with dreams and aspirations and the creative life definitely sustains us. Unfortunately for many, professional opportunities and the fiscal rewards they provide are often not commensurate to the time and focus that one needs to devote to maintaining that high level of craftsmanship. That's always a struggle and each of us has to make choices that are not always compatible to keeping up with the practical things in life, like making the rent and putting food on the table.

Back in Australia 20-30 years ago, I was called as a sideman a lot. In NYC rarely, so I got used to the idea that I had to create and generate my own performing opportunities. It's prepared me well for the current situation: I create my own touring opportunities. I'm still unsure what motivates and inspires us to keep going down that path. Maybe once we get hooked we have little choice in the matter, it's in the blood. The choice (if it's a choice) doesn't come without costs and compromises, but tell any one of us that we can't play this music and you'll see how much passion and commitment is inside every one of us—well you're going to hear it first I hope.

AAJ: In your wildest dreams did you ever imagine singing in Russia?

CM: Not quite. It's funny and I'm not sure what parallels can be drawn from this, but I discovered my creative voice and adventurous spirit fairly early on in life. An ability to imagine myself outside the tiny working class, slim on culture and art, universe that my five siblings and myself were raised in, is at the core of what drove me to write stories about far off lands, cultures and people.

I guess many things remain possible if you have an open mind and an adventurous spirit. For me those very same ingredients have fed my journey as musician. You also have to be fearless but careful at the same time but the other most essential ingredient for a jazz musician is work! We need to work, we need to play. This music is constantly cross-pollinating, it's not all here in the States, it never was, nor is the work either. We have to be opportunistic, so we go where the audiences are and very often it's a musician that sparks that interest to travel to a far off place. If people have a yearning to hear this music, it often only takes a conduit or two to bring jazz musicians together, often times it's an entrepreneur and sometimes it's not.

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