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Claire Daly: The Most Jazz Life I Could Ever Imagine

By Published: January 10, 2012
CD: Good question. Arguable. I think she was in her mid-seventies. I think she was born in 1899 but that's not verifiable, and she lied about her age all the time. I think the story became she did that trip when she was 26, and I think she was 35 or 36 when she did it. I think she was lopping off the years from early on.

AAJ: Mary went to Alaska with Leigh Hackley Smith; she had been hired as his nurse.

CD: Yes, exactly.

AAJ: But eventually their relationship developed into a love relationship?

CD: Yes. I actually have a note that he wrote to her. But he was a problem. He had physical problems [Smith had volunteered as a driver to transport wounded from the front lines for the French Army during World War I; he himself was wounded] and had become addicted to something. As I say when we do the gig, they had to put him in storage. He was getting into trouble and he was going to be a problem for the family so they were putting him on ice.

Alaska wasn't even a state yet. It was a territory. And it's pretty wildly remote now; back then I can only imagine how fabulous it was. She spent a year in the lodge by herself after Hack died, and I think that must have been a really isolated year. My feeling about it is that after the year was up, she was just ready to get on with it. She was ready to do something different. "I think I'll go to Fairbanks. I'll take the dogs." She raised the dogs; so she was there with dogs.

She was a pretty happy person. I saw some footage of her when I was in Alaska. The thing I know about Mary, her character, she was a total character herself, but loved people and other characters, and just got right in there with whoever. I think she was kind of a pioneer in the way of integrating Juneau. There were Irish people there, there were native Tlingit people, there were some other categories, and she was all about uniting people, which I love and identify with, too.

AAJ: In "Epilogue," the last tune on the CD, there's some spoken word. Are those your words?

CD: The first part is my words. And then the one tune that we covered is "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" because she quoted it in the book. I really wanted to get my hands on something that she liked, and do something with that. And then what I read after that is from the book. When we perform the music we do that piece first, to introduce her, to introduce the story. But I didn't want to start the CD with spoken word.

AAJ: In the text, you mention that she left her maps on the kitchen table, "but like a true improviser she didn't look back." And then you say, "Mary was a complete original, yet her story is not completely unique. It's a theme repeated in the heart of every dreamer. Her drive, her passions, her fears and her laughter belong to all of us who lose sight of the shore sometimes to find other lands." Tell me about that.

CD: Steve and I wrote it together. He wrote something, I'd change things, we'd go back and forth with things. That quote, about losing sight of the shore sometimes, is a quote from somewhere; I had it written on an index card, and I just had it stuck behind the thing on the piano where the music goes, and he found it. He just pulled it out and saw that and put it in somehow. When I finished the book one of the thoughts I had was this is the most jazz life I could ever imagine. Because she was an improviser. Her whole story—it's a wild and winding road of a free life. And to me that spoke to jazz so much that I wanted to make that analogy. She's an improviser. I'll tell you, having been up there, you're out in a dogsled thirteen miles from home and you realize you don't have your maps. And you're going 1000 miles. That's some crazy shit right there. She was a fabulous loon. I identify with that. I go places in the car and I don't know how to get there. Sometimes I can take off to do things before I have all the facts.

AAJ: Tell me about premiering the Project at the Juneau Jazz and Classics Festival.

CD: Oh, heaven on earth. So much fun. We were up there for a week and we did a residency, so we went to some schools. We went to a senior center. We performed in different locations and we did some teaching. They bus 200 kids from five different schools in to the state office building every Friday for a concert.

Talk about a cool education system. They call it Brown Bag Day; they bring a bag lunch, and they all come in and they sit on the floor in the lobby of this big office building and they get a concert. Every Friday. And these kids! So we had this amazing week. A friend of the festival organizer took us up in his small plane two at a time for a couple hours flying over Alaska. We went whale watching. We had a magic week.

AAJ: What's next for Nothing To Lose?


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