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Londonderry Sentinel / June 25, 2009 :

Gay looks back on a glittering career

THERE cannot be too many people around who after 60 years in the same career will defiantly inform you that rather than look for the quiet life, their passion, commitment and love for their chosen profession is actually getting stronger.

Known across Ireland, the UK and Europe as one of the finest exponents of jazz music ever, Gay McIntyre has however remained a faithful son of his own city.

Now in his 70s, he is still a regular star of festivals and concerts the length and breadth of the country and is preparing for yet another headline appearance at a Norwegian festival in August.

Having mixed with the biggest names in the jazz world over a lifetime, received countless plaudits and rave reviews, Gay was recently obviously most thrilled when outgoing mayor, Gerard Diver, held a special reception for him and his family in honour for his services to music at the Guildhall.

Honoured by city

Speaking to the Sentinel Gay said: "It felt great. I was delighted by the way it worked out. I considered it to be a great honour and I thought an awful lot of Gerard Diver. "I thought he was a very capable mayor. He had what a mayor should have - presence. I thought that with only ten days to go in office, it was a very nice thing to do."

Gay also said he never thought he'd see the day when he was honoured by his own city: "I was always too much of a non-political person. I escaped the 'normal' politics here through jazz music."

It is certainly true that as a child Gay McIntyre chose a form of music that would not have been within the perceived boundaries of his culture. In a society that would have provided him with a choice between traditional and classical music, it was perhaps an early indication of a character that even as a child thought outside the box. He is still doing that.

Travelling minstrel

Gay McIntyre's musical adventure began at a very early age. It was perhaps inevitable because of his family heritage. His father Willy McIntyre was a well known bandsman before him. But, his grandfather Bracey Daniels, was also to have a fundamental influence on his life.

"My grandfather's people were English, from Leicester. He ran a travelling roadshow, performing plays and variety shows, and I was a part of that. "He went to a different town every week. In the winter time we used the town halls and in summer he had a big marquee to perform in."

Interestingly, the jazz man explains that Gay is not his actual name, but a pet name. Most people assume that Gay is a shortened version of Gabriel - it is not, as the man himself explains.

"My actual name is George Albert. This is because my grandfather absolutely loved royalty. I never met anyone in my time who was so loyal to the royals. He made no pretence about it. In fact everyone in the family was given a royal name, he insisted on that.

"When he came to Ireland at first, he was very English, and he remained like that until his death. At the start his idea about Ireland was that we were very much lesser people than the English. That meant all of us, Catholic and Protestant.

"He quickly changed his mind when he saw the acts committed against the Irish in the south of Ireland in the 1920s, it caused him great distress and he felt very bad about it. But, he remained a royalist, even though he detested the acts committed by his own countrymen. In other ways he then became more Irish than the Irish. It was also him who gave me the pet name of Gay.

"I was 13-years-old when I travelled him for a year all over the south of Ireland. It was great."

Corinthian Ballroom and Benny Goodman

The introduction to jazz for Gay McIntyre came indirectly through his father whilst he and his band played in the Corinthian Ballroom during World War II. With the strategic importance of the city's port, servicemen of many nationalities flooded Londonderry - including Americans and Canadians. It was one of those servicemen who gave Willy McIntyre a Benny Goodman record. He took it home to his son.

"My mother wound up the gramophone. I hadn't heard four bars of the music before there were tears in my eyes. My mother said to my father, 'whatever instrument that is, we have to get him one of them.' It was a clarinet.

"My father earned 27 shillings a week. It took them two years to pay the 15 to get the instrument. My father handed it to me and said, 'this is a clarinet and this is for the rest of your life.' He must have seen that there was dedication in me early on. From then on I couldn't get enough money to go to the Strand Road to buy records and copy the music. I couldn't have done it without those records," said Gay.

McNamara's Band

It was perhaps a good thing that commitment to music was there at that early stage because it was also at that point that Gay's father informed him that he'd better go and practice his scales as his first professional job was just four weeks later. He was 14-years-old.

"The first job was in Bundoran. A man called John Foley had a group called McNamara's Band and he needed a player. We played from 9pm-3am in the morning. When I think about it he could have killed me as I was told, 'you don't stop playing.' I was so scared I wouldn't get the money, that I didn't stop playing," Gay said.

Yet, the benefits of life as a teenage professional musician soon became apparent: "I was paid 30 shillings for that Sunday night in Bundoran. My father earned 27 shillings for playing four nights a week in the Corinthian.

"So, I was well ahead of the posse then. It was great. I handed my mother the money and she gave me back half-a-crown, which was some money then."

Still, it was a tough apprenticeship. There was no such thing as 'roadies' back then and young McIntyre often found himself helping to hoist a piano onto the back of a lorry in the early hours of the morning, pulling a tarpaulin over it and sometimes travelling beside that piano in either snow or rain.

Gay stayed with McNamara's Band for two years and then sent his brother in his place.

"I used to get sick travelling all the time on the bus. The conductor was almost always a man called Tommy Sproule that many Derry people will remember. He was a very kind person. Because the bus always needed to travel on time, he use to tell me to stand by the door, he would open it and then hang onto me and I was sick while the bus kept rolling."

With two years stage experience behind him, Gay McIntyre at the wise old age of 16, decided to start his own band. His family provided the nucleus of the membership.

Memorial Hall

"One of the first road trips for the band was in Kiltimagh, County Mayo. Somebody from Mayo was in Derry and asked where they could hear some good music. They were directed to hear my band in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall. The man said, 'you are a terrific band, you'll have to come and play in Kiltimagh,' I said 'I'm your man.' That gig went down a storm and generated a lot of work.

"In fact it was me who got the Clipper Carlton showband into the south of Ireland. A guy from Cork approached me and asked if there were any bands around that were as good as ours. My band was the best around musically, but the Clipper Carlton were a far better showband. It was strange but I was then with the Clipper Carlton when they finished playing, as was another musician from here, John Trotter."

Before that point, Gay had a chance to go to America, the home of jazz, with two friends. By a strange twist of fate, the airline sent two tickets instead of three. The toss of a coin decided that the two other men set off of for the USA and Gay stayed behind. The plane crashed, killing both men.

"One of the men, many in people in Derry will remember. He was called Victor Meldrum," said Gay.

Nat King Cole

A second opportunity to have a crack at the USA emerged later, when Gay had an encounter with one of the all-time greats, Nat King Cole.

At a gig in Belfast's Grand Opera House the legendary American heard Gay performing and offered him the chance to go to the USA with all his contacts at his disposal, making it clear that the Derry man would accumulate fame and fortune very quickly, such was the breadth of his talent. Nat King Cole was turned down.

"First of all I didn't want to fly. But, I wasn't very keen anyway. All I wanted was to have my own spot to play music. I had no great desire to be anywhere."

Humphrey Lyttleton

Friendships with the legendary figures of jazz in these islands are as natural to Gay McIntyre as the sunshine. Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk are amongst them. But, it was of another jazz legend, Humphrey Lyttleton, who sadly died last year, that Gay related a charming tale.

"My grandson recently found a letter from Humphrey Lyttleton thanking me for sending a recording to his radio show. He had been in Derry and complained that I never sent him anything for the show. I told him I never thought I had anything outstanding enough to send him. So I then found in the house a recording I had made with Louis Stewart and a great Canadian jazz pianist, Albert Jones.

"The tune was 'All The Things You Are', but it was fourteen minutes long. I told Lyttleton it was very long, but the letter he wrote said, 'I'm playing every minute of it."

It is perhaps a measure of the esteem that Gay McIntyre is held in that a renowned broadcaster played a track lasting almost 15 minutes without a break. Humphrey Lyttleton's jazz show was on BBC Radio 4 for 40 years and was generally regarded as the best musical barometer of quality jazz across Europe.

Gay told the Sentinel: "The letter also said: 'It gave me great pleasure to play this on my programme'. We have been great friends for a long time."

The Big Apple

Eventually, Gay McIntyre did make it to the USA, with his wife. In New York he did get to hear jazz, but said that the Big Apple was "strangely bereft" of the genre on a widespread basis. "In fact, there was probably more jazz in Ireland at that time," he said. "At that time the big club was in Greenwich Village and was called the Village Vanguard. There was another one on 42nd Street and all the top names played there. I didn't see as much as I would have liked, but the ones I did see were all top class."

Longevity at this level within the professional musical circuit does not come without the ability to adapt and improvise. Gay McIntyre is firmly of the opinion that the advent of musical technology, rather than take away from the real flavour of jazz, has in fact helped to enhance it. He is still, even now, experimenting with sound and musical arrangements of the classics within his genre. Whilst Gay plays flute and violin, he remains steadfast to his favourites, the saxophone and clarinet.

"They have more expression for me, perhaps because I have concentrated more on them."

Regarding his ability as a gift, he said: "The love of it has never left me. It's stronger than ever. I don't know what to attribute this to. I have still have the same love for the tunes I played all those years ago."

England

Having packed up his band at the age of 32, Gay spent the next two years playing clubs in Manchester. It was there that the Clipper Carlton approached him and offered him the chance to return home. He played with the band for the remaining two years of their existence and by then had settled in Belfast, teaching and playing.

UTV, BBC and RTE

Then a break came his way when Tommy James, of 'Tea Time with Tommy', then UTV's most highly rated programme. "Tommy was a real gentleman," said Gay.

Having been brought right back into the conciousness of the public here with the TV appearances, it wasn't long before the work began to roll in again. At this point he was also poached by the BBC and a character called Kent Healey. Although sad to leave 'Tea Time with Tommy' behind, the reason for the switch to the BBC was simple - it meant more money.

The BBC NI Orchestra at that point was a 45 piece outfit. On exactly the same day he was approached to joint the BBC outfit, he also got a call from RTE requesting he join their orchestra. He joined both, and spent half his week in Belfast and the other half in Dublin.

Through making friends with the various orchestra conductors Gay also learned that extra money could be made by playing clarinet or saxophone solos during the performances.

"You got 27 per solo at the BBC and 9 per solo at RTE, so the conductors would say they needed three or four solos in each performance!"

Grafton Street-Dublin

Whilst walking through Dublin's Grafton Street one evening Gay relates that he heard the most wonderful sound coming out of a club. This was his first encounter with the guitarist Louis Stewart. "He invited me on stage to play. I knew then I was in the presence of genuis.

"He had been at Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London for six years, but he asked me to form a quartet and travel the globe with him. Just at that point, I got a call from the Western Education and Library Board (WELB) to interview for a teaching post. I wanted to join Louis Stewart, but I had four daughters and two sons .

"It was one of the few times I thought logically in my life. It came down to the fact that I had family to provide for and that took precendence over any indulgences with jazz," he said.

Foyle and Londonderry College

Gay spent the next 24 years teaching at schools all over the WELB area: "I taught mostly at primary schools but I spent a day and a half every week teaching at Foyle and Londonderry College, the only senior school I taught at.

"I want to mention a great relationship I had with a music teacher at Foyle, a man called Billy West. My respect for him is still immense. He was a great, great musician. He was offered the organist position at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin. This is a top job and you have to be good to be offered it. He turned it down. Like myself he wanted to stay here."

The Derry air

The renowned musical ability of this city is something which Gay McIntyre still marvels at. Singling out characters like Mick Williams, John Trotter, Joe Quigley, who he said were world class, Gay estimated that for a city this size the number of highly accomplished players is phenomenal, as are the amount of top class singers.

The Troubles

Unlike most people, Gay McIntyre does not think that the outbreak of the Troubles damaged the live music scene beyond repair.

"I feel that the troubles actively pushed people into going out for the night. I think the attitude was 'If you are going to go, you might as well go enjoying yourself.' But, so many tragic things happened to all of the people here."

Recalling that he played Belfast clubs at the height of the conflict Gay said one particular Sunday night in a club in Black Street stands out.

"We were in a strange situation, in that if we didn't turn up we risked being shot. So we tried to steer the middle road and we weren't very successful at it. The night that finished us, we were bringing equipment into the club from the street. I went back to get a speaker in and a soldier was already there lifting it inside. I said 'thanks very much' and thought no more of it.

"At the end of the night a guy came over to me and said, 'you're very fond of the British aren't you?' I explained that the soldier was already there when I got there and that he spoke with a thick Dublin accent even though he was wearing a British uniform.

"Anyway, this guy wasn't satisfied with my answer, so he banged me and I went down. Next thing, three or four of them piled in on top of me and I thought I was finished. Then I looked up and saw a gun being produced and a guy telling them to 'clear off', and saying 'this man was good enough to come up here and provide entertainment'. We never went back after that."

City of Derry Jazz Festival

Several years ago Gay approached Derry City Council with an idea to launch a jazz festival in this city. After an initial period of hesitation the festival got up and running and this year's proved to be the most widespread and successful to date

"This year's festival was great, but, and this is not a predjudice against any kind of music, but on any night of the festival, you can find people on the peripheries who have nothing whatsoever to do with jazz. That shouldn't be the way it is.

"The festival should be attracting the very top guys in jazz. Get them involved and the rest will follow. Anyway, that's the way I would like to see it. However, it's still a highly positive thing for the city."

Onwards and upwards

With the year's festival over, Gay is not sitting back on his laurels. Next on the agenda is a trip to Wigan Jazz Festival, an event which he has relished going to in the past few years, especially because he gets to play with his son Paul, a highly regarded and accomplished pianist.

"They have a wonderful youth orchestra there. We will also be performing with a bass player who spent three years playing with Miles Davies."

The enthusiasm that still abounds from Gay McIntyre can only be regarded as contagious. And, one of the most pleasing aspects of his life to date is as he explains: "I keep being approached by many people who I taught in schools over the years who are now teachers themselves. I know now that will keep the tradition of music of all kinds in this city going."

As for winding down, Gay said: "I have no plans to retire. I don't see a point in retiring, what would I do? Jazz is my life, it keeps me going."

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006