Claire Daly: The Most Jazz Life I Could Ever Imagine

Andrea Wolper By

Sign in to view read count
December 22, 1935. "I am going up the Taku River by dogteam to Fairbanks." "But you can't do that; there are mountains or something you can't get over. Anyway, it's no place for a woman." Thus man disposes of woman. That settled I went quietly about my business of getting ready.

Thus begins the journal of Mary Joyce, a native of Wisconsin living near Juneau. Invited to the March 1936 Fairbanks Ice Carnival, she spent the winter months traveling the thousand-mile stretch with her dog team, sometimes guided by native Alaskans. That she was the first non-Alaskan to make the journey by dogsled is only one of her many distinctions. Motoring along Route 66 in the early 1920s, nursing degree in hand, she landed in Hollywood, where she worked in pictures as actor, as nurse, as medical consultant. She was the first ham radio operator in the Alaskan territories, and the only woman to run supplies by dogsled for the Allies during World War II.

1971, Westchester County, NY. A young girl who's been studying saxophone for three months attends a big band concert led by drummer Buddy Rich. After the concert, excited, inspired, she heads for the stage door in search of autographs. Spotting the band bus parked nearby, she tells her father, "I'd do anything to be on that bus."

And thus begins the jazz life of saxophonist Claire Daly, whose father was Mary Joyce's cousin. Perhaps an adventuresome spirit runs in the bloodline. Whereas Joyce was told that the Alaskan wilderness was "no place for a woman," but went ahead, anyway, Daly entered the exhilarating, if not always hospitable, world of professional jazz. As Daly puts it, "There have been challenges in jazz but, like Mary, I just forge on and do what I can."

Three things Daly can do—and do very well—are play the saxophone (like most sax players, she doubles on other reed instruments, but her main axe is a bari), lead a band, and write music. Nothing To Lose: The Mary Joyce Project (Daily Bread, 2011), was inspired by and pays homage to her trailblazing forebear.

The music, by Daly and pianist Steve Hudson, has been described at All About Jazz as "a tribute to the very idea of charting one's own path through life, regardless of conventions or expectations."

All About Jazz: You met Mary Joyce when you were a child and she visited your family. She showed you her scrapbook about her journey, but you've said you were too young to understand the enormity of what she'd done. When did you come to understand it more, to really connect with Mary and her story?

Claire Daly: I feel like I fully connected with the story when I read the journal just a few years ago. [Mary Joyce: Taku to Fairbanks 1000 Miles By Dogsled (AuthorHouse) was published in 2007 by another cousin, Mary Ann Greiner.] Before then, she was a figure in my childhood; I could tell you that she did this trip but I didn't really have a concept of what that meant. It was after the journal was published. I put the book down and said, "I've got to write music for her."

AAJ: Once you'd decided you had to write music for Mary, how did you approach it?

CD: I knew I wanted to collaborate with someone, and I thought, I've got to be really careful who I pick to collaborate with because a lot of times I'm drawn to something I think is a good idea and then [imitates sound of explosion]. And Steve Hudson—I did gigs with his Outer Bridge Ensemble. I loved his writing, and one of the things I loved about it was that I felt it was cinematic and really expressive in a way that appealed to me. So he and I started getting together. A lot of the beginning of working the project was talking about Mary.

When I went to Alaska the first time...you know when you know when you're onto something, you're on to the thing you should be doing? We went to Alaska, I'm spending all this money, and I don't know where it's going. I think I can get some grants for it, but I don't know how (and I wasn't actually able to), but when Mary died she left The Lucky Lady [the bar Mary opened in the early 1970s] to her friend Neil and my cousin Mary Ann Greiner. So I'm with Mary Ann, and Neil says, in his Irish brogue, "We're cleanin' out the apartment and there's four boxes of her stuff. You want it?"

I said, "Uh, that would be yes, please!" He gives me four boxes of photographs, family letters from the turn of the century, her affects. She was a stewardess—you had to be a nurse to be a stewardess in those days, and she was a nurse—so there was all this wacky stuff. I mailed it all home, so Steve and I sat and were going through her stuff because we really wanted to get a sense of her, not in a removed, idolized way. We just really wanted to get a sense of her. Because all these great people, they're all just people. And they're really just doing what they feel like their calling is to do in life. She wasn't trying to be some big pioneer. She wasn't trying to be the first woman to do anything.

So Steve and I would talk about her. We wanted to capture the free spirit, but we didn't want to just be blowing free for the whole record. We really wanted it to be structured, but we wanted to combine genres a little bit. So we would make up games to play, "Okay we're going to play for X amount of time, and let's have this be related to some aspect of the trip." Like, "you're thinking about going on a trip, what does that feel like?" and then to try and play. We did a lot of playing. Even making up compositional games. Sometimes we had little homework assignments.

AAJ: Did you decide that there'd be themes the different pieces of music would address? There's one tune that's an homage to the dogs, there's another about her relationship with Hack Smith [with whom Mary traveled to Alaska]; there are different aspects of the story covered in different pieces of music. Did you decide on those ahead of time?

CD: It sort of showed up that way. We weren't really sure how this was going to show up. We wanted to just make ourselves available to it and see what we got. And that was kind of how it rolled out. And then some of the stuff... like, Steve brought in "Tippin,'" the song for the dogs, at the last minute. He just popped up with that tune, and we had room.

AAJ: Using "Tippin'" as an example, did he write it and say, okay, we'll say this one is for the dogs, or did he say, let me write a piece about the dogs?

CD: I think both happened throughout the writing, because it happened over a course of time. And it really accelerated once we started getting the band together. Because we worked on it by ourselves for a pretty long time. I think there was more, "I'm gonna write something about the lonely year or" ... there was some of that, and some of just getting an inspiration on a song. Like, "Gotta Go": I didn't say I think I'll write a song about how she's got to make the trip; I thought, I'm going to see if I can make a tune I like just using three notes for the A section. I'd written the song, and when we got the band together and I heard how it sounded, how it unfolded, I [realized] it's got a compelling move in it.

AAJ: Stylistically, it could have been approached in such a way that it had to be Irish music, or music that reflected that of indigenous people in Alaska. But it's varied. Did you feel unrestricted in terms of style?

CD: We wanted to honor all that stuff. The first tune, "Guidance," was written with the idea [of reflecting the music of the native guides who traveled with Mary]. I think we found Inuit Indian stuff first and then when I was in Juneau I bought all the Tlingit stuff I could find; that one's written in honor them. [But overall] we kind of had "anything goes" as a style. We didn't want to do a cheesy homage. We wanted the music to stand on its own as music—as good music.

AAJ: And I think you wanted to be who you are as musicians.

CD: Oh, yeah, definitely. But we did think we wanted something in honor of [the Tlingit guides]. And we were thinking about Irish music because Mary loved Irish music. I found out a lot of stuff when I was out there. She had two jukeboxes. She loved music. She had [one for] pop music—whatever would be on a jukebox—and she had an Irish jukebox. So there was a lot of Irish music played in that bar. It's kind of an Irish bar. There're shamrocks on the logo.

AAJ: When you started working on the project, at what point did you say I have to go to Alaska and see it for myself?

CD: Probably pretty early on. I would say after I decided to do the project, maybe six or eight months later, I thought I should go to Alaska and take my cousin, Mary Ann, who lived there and knew Mary really well, and was with Mary when she died, and was probably the closest family member to Mary. She's in her seventies. I thought I should go with her to Alaska and really get the feel of Mary's life there. And that was the smartest thing I did. She was thrilled because she didn't think she'd get back to Alaska again and she loves Alaska.

You have to take a boat or a plane to the Taku Lodge, where [Mary] lived. There're no cars. When I say remote—it is remote. You've got the lodge, and you've got a yard—a front area—and then it's the Gastineau Channel, which is a big channel, so boats can come up; there's a little dock. And across the channel is the Hole in the Wall Glacier. That's your view. That's it. It's you and the bears. There was a bear there when I got there.

We had a jam session at the Lucky Lady when the band was there in May. We stayed in the Alaskan Hotel, which is this old haunted, kind of wacky hotel, right across from The Lucky Lady. And it was really cool. There was a bar on the corner, and the people hanging out in the bar were her friends. There were friends of hers just hanging out there. Mary died in 1976.

AAJ: At what age?

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?

CD: This project has had no grant money. And I applied for various things but I didn't get anything. So it's been so far a labor of love. I'd like to develop it further, to use photos and film or whatever I can find. Mary was in a movie, too, she was in Orphans of the North (1940).

AAJ: Mary was told the wilderness was no place for a woman. It's no longer rare to be a woman saxophonist, but it's still not exactly the norm. Are there points of connection with Mary in terms of living life off the beaten path? Despite a lot of progress, we still live in a world where things aren't always equal for people, based on who they are.

CD: I think I would say that when I was a kid and I met Mary she had a free spirit and I saw that, and I was drawn to that. In the same way, though, I don't do what I do to be different. I chose it because it spoke to me. The music went, "okay, you're ours." I felt that it was a calling early on. So when other people see it as unusual for a woman to be doing what I'm doing, I'm willing to believe they mean that as a compliment, and I just go about my business. I've said this a lot: I never think about the fact that I'm a woman playing the saxophone. I don't get the gender definition. I really think we're people.

There are isms present everywhere. And I choose to see it and observe it and just go on and go where the water is warm.

Selected Discography

Claire Daly, Nothing To Lose: The Mary Joyce Project (Daily Bread, 2011)
Giacomo Gates, Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron (Savant, 2011)
Two Sisters, Inc., Scaribari (Baritunes, 2007)
Kit McClure Band, Just The Thing: The Sweethearts Project Revisited (Red Hot, 2006
Claire Daly, Heaven Help Us All (Daily Bread, 2004)
Mike Longo, Oasis (CAP, 2004)
Claire Daly, Movin' On (Koch, 2002)
Claire Daly, Swing Low (Koch, 1999)
George Garzone, Moodiology (NYC, 1999)

Photo Credit: Page 1 (Top): Mandarine Montgomery; All Others: Courtesy of Claire Daly

Post a comment


Shop Amazon



Read Charles Mingus: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Top Ten Kennedy Center Musical Moments
Read Zakir Hussain: Making Music, Part 1-2
Read Meet Gabrielle Cavassa

All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded albums and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, limited reopenings and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary step that will help musicians and venues now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the sticky footer ad). Thank you!

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.