Adventurous American Journeys: Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose, by the Claire Daly Quintet

By Daniel Garrett

Claire Daly Quintet, Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose
Engineers Jim Czak and Bill Moss
Produced by Claire Daly
Daly Bread Records, 2011

“I identified myself as a ‘lifer,’ who would play music no matter what happened in the business.”
—Claire Daly

“I met her as a child but only realized how amazing she was when my cousin published her journal two years ago.”
—Claire Daly about Mary Joyce

The composition “Guidance” has both structure and spirit, and something of its percussive rhythm suggests qualities earthy and modern, possibly the meeting of two cultures, possibly an urban wilderness. It is not what I was expecting, considering the story behind the album it opens, Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose. Stories fascinate us; they can confine or liberate us, confirming our fears and rages or encouraging our ambitions and hopes. Mary Joyce Project: Nothing To Lose was inspired by a true life story, an old story, about an early twentieth-century Wisconsin woman who went out to meet the world, traveling from Wisconsin to Hollywood and Alaska, but its music does not bring to mind antique photographs or evoke cobwebs and dust; in fact, its rhythms, its atmosphere and aural tones, are alive, contemporary. The woman to whom the album is dedicated, Mary Joyce, took a dogsled from Juneau to Fairbanks in Alaska in 1936, a one-thousand mile journey lasting three months; and Mary Joyce ran supplies for the Allies by dogsled during the second world war. “Guidance,” that opening song, has a concentrated, nearly incantatory, repetition of patterns, and something tribal nears its end; and I was not surprised to learn the piece is intended to pay respect to the native guides who went part of the way to Fairbanks with the white woman, Mary Joyce. In hearing “Homage to Freedom,” written by saxophonist Claire Daly and pianist Steve Hudson (Hudson wrote “Guidance”), the listener thinks of the present, rather than the past, in the repeating pattern of notes, first ascending, then descending, followed by a sliding, streaking sound, and a discernible enthusiasm and good humor. There is a forceful, funky beginning to “Homage to Freedom,” succeeded by a scampering, speculative rhythm that is intense, an insistent piano, and an interplay between instruments bringing to mind the clash of perceptions that comes with new experience.

Music, like knowledge, like love, begins within individuals, before it is shared between two persons or among more people. The Claire Daly Quintet consists of five individuals, of baritone (and alto) saxophonist Claire Daly, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, drummer Peter Grant, the human beat box Napoleon Maddox, and pianist Steve Hudson; and I had not heard of the group before now. It says something good about the composed, improvised, and syncopated music known as jazz, a music in which neither delicacy or passion is afraid to show itself, that there are always musicians and sounds to discover or recover. The quintet’s leader Claire Daly began playing saxophone as a girl, and was particularly stirred when she heard a Westchester performance by the Buddy Rich Band; and, years later, she attended the Berklee College of music, before becoming a journey-woman musician, playing her own music and that of others, in clubs and on festival stages and in the recording studio. Daly has provided musical support to Rosemary Clooney and Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Joe Williams; and the Mary Joyce Project could be placed next to the divergent work of female artists such as Julia Wolfe, Rene Marie, and Alicia Keys and be comprehensible in the terms of each. Daly’s saxophone can sound haunting and whispery, or convivial, or triumphant, evidence that the saxophone may be the most human of instruments. (Daly has provoked the kind of regard that makes her use of certain equipment an object of speculation, suggesting how easy it is for admirers of music to create fetish objects.) It is Daly’s flute that is heard amid the fast rhythm of piano and drums in “Determined,” a piece written by Steve Hudson, whose piano playing exudes conviction and warmth. With the rumbling rhythm of “Determined,” it takes no effort to be alert to the composition’s soulful quality, which includes the energy and momentum of a human beat box. Slow, solitary, and somber is Daly’s “Lonely Wilderness,” her evocation of life following the death of Mary Joyce’s companion Hackley Smith. One imagines an early morning or late night, when one looks out at the landscape, or up at the sky, and wonders about purpose. Hearing the music, whether it is happy or melancholy, is like discovering a natural resource—gold or oil; and the listener feels deliriously lucky. The songs show variety, as do the tones; and Daly’s saxophone has a lower, thicker tone in “Complicated Love,” a song she wrote, a music composition suffused with an aura of secluded or secret speculation. “Kluane” has an adventurous, spirited sound, nearly comic (a Chaplinesque comedy that flirts with tragedy); and it takes its name from Kluane Lake, which Mary Joyce crossed by dogsled.

If one finds oneself in a metropolitan western city, it might be easy to take a certain amount of female public achievement for granted. If one finds oneself in a small, country town, west or east, it might be easy to observe and respect the daily, ordinary strength that women’s work takes. Or not. I have been surprised sometimes to realize that I still had some old-fashion, rather sentimental, assumptions about what women think, feel, or do; or that someone I was speaking with had no idea about the varieties of female sensibilities that exist, or the kinds of work that women have done and are doing now. Consequently, I conclude that fine qualities and genuine achievements must be, at the very least, acknowledged, and that they deserve celebration—poetry, music, stories, whistles, sparklers, cake, champagne, and more. Claire Daly, who in the past interviewed jazz figures for a research project, brings forth that kind of celebration in Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose, which began at home then took Daly far from home. Claire Daly had met her father’s visiting first cousin Mary Joyce in Yonkers when Daly was a child, at which time Mary Joyce showed Claire some photographs from Joyce’s life; Joyce died in 1976; and decades later Daly visited Juneau with her cousin Mary Ann Greiner, who had published Mary Joyce’s journal and who introduced Claire Daly to Mary Joyce’s friends, as Daly notes in her liner notes: “We talked with people who knew her (‘Duffy’ did a great impression!). We visited the Taku Lodge, among other places in her life.”

One way in which Claire Daly’s quintet avoids an antiquated, cloying sound while paying tribute to someone who is now part of history is by shrewdly including the human beat box. I have not admired “the human beat box,” a phenomenon I associated with hustling, rough young men on metropolitan streets, but the sounds Napoleon Maddox makes, when placed against Mary McSweeney’s bass, have an abstract quality I like in “Who’s Crazy?”; and when the piece develops, it has a groove that freshly emerges. Claire Daly sings in a clear voice Steve Hudson’s “Shine,” a promise of continual presence, of shared luminescence, and the song is intimate, sincere, and yet vast in spirit, in the American songbook tradition. It is easy to forget that the sublime is real, that it waits for us beneath and beyond our daily lives; but art exists to remind us.

So many different things go into making a good life—waking and sleeping, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, interesting work, great art, trustworthy and dependable friends, and a family that does not make you crazy. Long walks in familiar lanes, distant travel, and a place to come home to and be quiet in, or in which to invite guests. Participation in civic purpose. To hear an accomplished and wise person talk of the beauty or value of a simple thing can be touching. To hear an ignorant person of no significant distinction do the same is often not touching at all. It can be disgusting, also, to hear passion defended by someone who indulges in emotion and instinct regardless of circumstance or consequence; to have someone who is always in the midst of madness describe such mindless obsession as admirable although it is not. When a thoughtless person says that he just wants to forget the past, and all the knowledge—Emerson and Thoreau, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, William Dean Howells and Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Henry Tanner, Thomas Edison, W.E.B. DuBois—that came with it, the declaration does not impress or even interest. The repudiation of knowledge is only significant when it is made by someone who knows how knowledge—Ethel Waters, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Lena Horne, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Sidney Poitier, John Cheever, Dawn Powell, Lorraine Hansberry, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Toni Morrison—is earned and why it has mattered—and does matter. To deny what you have not known is a meaningless repudiation. The fact is that the knowing repudiation often is made not as an end in itself, but as part of a larger, longer quest for something valued: serenity, peace, love, fellowship, compassion; but the greatest dream remains reconciliation of everything. There is always a moment when contemplating the best art when the listener, the reader, the viewer, gains a perception, a glimpse, of what it might be like to know and to be reconciled.

“In a perfect world, musicians don’t have to think about anything but music,” Claire Daly said (Downbeat magazine, February 2011; months before the official autumn release of her quintet’s Mary Joyce Project). It can be easy to be cynical about much of contemporary music, especially with the industry’s faulty favoritism, artistic neglect, and even corruption, and the increasing necessity for artists to find their own funding and conduct multifaceted public outreach, but jazz has a renewable beauty and force. The fact that it is an art form that does not merely allow but requires individual contributions of talent, mind, and spirit is a basic part of that. Claire Daly is the kind of artist that helps to sustain the music: she has been cited by Downbeat as a talent deserving wider recognition, and was named several years ago by the Jazz Journalists Association as baritone saxophonist of the year, commendation that would mean more if both authorities—the magazine and professional association—were properly integrated but which must be encouragement for a musician who has described the music business as containing no rhyme or reason. It was the Chicago Reader’s Neil Tesser who remarked that Daly’s playing style lacks clutter, and produces great effect through modulation and nuance, able to gently swing or boldly rock. On the Claire Daly Quintet’s Mary Joyce Project, there is strength in the playing in “Gotta Go,” and “Tippin’” reminds me first of half-remembered themes, old favorite musical patterns I cannot name, and secondly of African high-life music (Daly associates the latter Hudson tune with leaping Alaskan sled dogs). Such renewal of beauty and force is not grim, or even stoic—it brings smiling, laughing, dancing pleasure; pleasure that begins, like knowledge, within an individual, before it is brought into the world and shared with others. Daly has said, “The world is pretty far from perfect, so if you want a life in music, I hope you can find it in yourself to be as involved in the details as you can. Optimism, improvisation, and willingness to explore new possibilities help, too!”

The Claire Daly Quintet’s album Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose, beautiful and fun music I only have begun to delve into, comes to an end with a multi-part composition containing spoken comments directly addressing the life and spirit of Mary Joyce, her response to nature, her sense of wounds and recovery, her imagination and vision, with music that contains echoes of American blues and gospel, different traditions that have become part of a shared musical language. Mary Joyce had been a woman in nursing, an actor in film, both stewardess and bush pilot, and even the owner of “The Lucky Lady,” an Irish bar. She had wanted to go from Juneau to Fairbanks for an ice festival. Mary Joyce, a woman who left her maps on the kitchen table, was a woman of firsts: the first person who was not a native to dogsled from Juneau to Fairbanks, and the region’s first ham radio operator; and the only woman dogsledder to run supplies for the Allies. Her journey is seen as one that is “repeated in the heart of every dreamer,” a journey taken as “we lose sight of the shore sometimes to find other lands.”

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and politics, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.