Claire Daly: The Most Jazz Life I Could Ever Imagine

Andrea Wolper By

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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?
About Claire Daly
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