By Jeff Cebulski
Saxophonist, composer, and band leader Roy McGrath, born and bred in Puerto Rico, educated in the United States, and a provocateur of Afro-Caribbean expression here in the city, has become a Chicago-based jazz troubadour in Asia during the past five years. He has led three tours to Asia, educating college musicians on jazz, while playing in jazz clubs in the evenings. In an attempt to catch up with him, we found Roy in Myanmar, in the middle of an every-other-year effort to stimulate jazz development overseas, while basking in the completion of his latest album, Remembranzas, while augmenting his palate of new compositions and projects.
Chicago Jazz: So, if someone asked you "How does a guy born in Puerto Rico, associated with Chicago jazz and plays Latin-influenced music, end up performing and teaching in places like Myanmar and Korea?", how would you explain?
Roy McGrath: Simple. Northwestern University. I studied at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music under the guidance of Director of Jazz Studies Victor Goines, my saxophone professor from 2012-2014, graduating with a Master's Degree in Jazz Studies. During my time there I met a great friend of mine, Laurie Bonner, a Masters of Music Education student while I was there. After she graduated from NU, she moved to Beijing, China to teach at Dulwich College, originally a school system from England, which now has many campuses all over Asia for international students. Laurie was a music teacher at Dulwich for four years and even started the first youth jazz big band there.
In 2014 she approached me about doing a bunch of clinics in Beijing and other places in Asia teaching Jazz, improvisation, and general musicianship to her students. We also went to two campuses in Shanghai, one in Suzhou, two campuses in Seoul, South Korea, one in Singapore. We repeated the journey in 2016, and now in 2019 we added Yangon, Myanmar, formerly Burma. Dulwich has enjoyed and embraced us each time, so we keep coming back and will continue to do so. We have developed and maintained relationships with the older students and continue to form new bonds with the younger ones, which will surely carry into the future. Each time I brought a quartet from Chicago with me. The first year, Joaquin Garcia on piano, Kitt Lyles on bass, and Gustavo Cortinas on drums. The second year I brought Kitt Lyles on bass, Jonathon Wenzel on drums, and Bill Cessna on piano. This year I brought Bill, Samuel Peters on bass, and Jonathon.
Laurie has since then moved back to Oregon with her husband and I have still upheld and advanced my relationship with Dulwich independently. It would be important to note that Dulwich originally wanted a two-week intensive tour just teaching and traveling to the next school. However, we have coordinated with them to extend the tour to a month, where in between teachings and in the evenings we play jazz clubs in all the countries, including the Blue Note Jazz Club in Beijing, among others.
CJ: What other venues have you been able to play at or are well-known in Asia?
RM: JZ Jazz Club in Shanghai: Amazing club managed by Johnny Wang. Super big club, reminds me of the Green Mill. East Shore Jazz Club in Beijing—reminds me of the Village Vanguard. This is my favorite club in Asia to play! Managed by Fischer Li and his partner, it’s a beautiful second floor club overlooking the Hohai Lake.
Cafe/Youdai & Cloud Nine—the hippest newest club in Beijing. Run by DJ Youdai, a truly important icon in Chinese history for throwing parties in the 80's with smuggled-in American LP vinyls. It's a small little coffee shop with seats for four to six people serving DJ Youdai's own coffee brand. If you walk to the back you'll hit a button and it opens up to a small little elevator door. You then hit another button and it opens up to a club that's the size of the Jazz Showcase, filled with the highest quality audio equipment in China, plus a huge T Rex statue!
CJ: While you mention that Asiatic jazz fans are pretty much the same as their Western counterparts, I wonder if your travels and interaction with them give you a unique perspective as to the state of the art.
RM: In China, there are many local musicians that have studied in the United States and have brought their talent and skills back to play and lead groups here. For example, Terence Hsieh, who studied at Oberlin. There are also American professionals, making a living playing jazz. Vocalist Frank Bray and drummer Al Gordon are examples. I've met other musicians that have a direct connection to the U.S., musicians that keep the style thriving in Shanghai and Beijing. There’s a club called Modernista in Beijing managed by my friend, Nuria, which has a swing dance night once a week. New clubs are opening all the time! Speaking of that, we actually might be playing at a brand new one in Shanghai later on this year.
Young people love jazz in China! At jazz clubs we see mostly young people in the age group 21 to 35. Same goes for South Korea. And young musicians are always flocking to these new clubs. I think it has to do with the freedom and democratic approach that jazz brings. It's a beautiful thing. As a matter of fact, we just played a brand-new club in Korea called Boogie Woogie. We played to a packed house on a Tuesday night, all youngsters, who were truly excited to hear our music!
CJ: In your teaching, is the language barrier a problem, or does the music overcome that, generally?
RM: The language barrier is definitely a problem. But we are fortunate to have taught in schools where most students have a decent level of English. And for those that had issues asking or answering questions, and/or understanding, there was always a student or teacher nearby to translate. All of our workshops have been going pretty smoothly, actually.
As for music overcoming barriers, it would be evident that if they didn’t understand at all, we wouldn't be able to teach them. Some sort of communication base is necessary. Music can overcome barriers when there is common ground and everyone is on the same page, like jazz musicians we met at Jam Sessions at Bricks Jazz Club in Shanghai, as well as a couple other sessions.
CJ: Do you see your Asian performing/teaching excursions continuing long term?
RM: Absolutely, every other year. It’s has been only getting better every year. We play new clubs and have new opportunities!
CJ: It’s apparent that jazz has become part of cultural imagination and creativity overseas in the East. Is this a fresher, more exciting thing than what you experience back home?
RM: Absolutely not. Jazz played in the United States—Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and other cities—is at the freshest it could be. Every single time new music comes out, the freshness is portrayed in its own unique way. My friends and colleagues in the U.S. are continually recording amazing records. And there are musicians back home in Puerto Rico, Jonathan Suazo and Fernando Garcia, that are also recording amazing albums. Jazz is everywhere now.
I would never downgrade or discredit jazz anywhere. The only thing I will note is that, sometimes, other cultures undermine the importance of the Afro-American roots of jazz, and you can hear that disparity in the music, sometimes. Jazz is not a competition. The fact that the other side of the world is interested in our style of music it is flattering, and it should be regarded as nothing but an honor and a celebration of the beauty in American music.
CJ: Does it transcend politics or cast the U.S. in a better light?
RM: I think music overall casts any culture in a better light. As Americans we’ve definitely been received everywhere with rapport and good vibrations. In addition, we are automatically accepted by jazz musicians and other musicians that we meet overseas. It’s a little more difficult to glean how the U.S. is portrayed in the eyes of the different Asian countries we visited. From our firsthand experiences, we, personally, are welcomed beautifully. If anything I would say that our personal interaction and connections definitely casts the U.S. in a good, positive light.
CJ: Were you attracted to jazz sax from the start? When that did happen, did you have certain ‘heroes’ of the instrument/genre that you emulated?
RM: Yes, I was. About a week or two into owning the saxophone. I went to the local mall, Plaza Las Americas to a Borders bookstore—unfortunately now out of business—to buy a CD and understand what the saxophone sounded like. I had no idea what to expect. I had like $10 or $13 on me so I had to choose wisely. Knowing nothing about jazz, I saw that the jazz section, with enticing two-Cd’s-for-$10 special, had a record with a saxophonist on its cover.
A black man and his saxophone under a blueish hue light. I thought it looked super cool, so I bought it. That was John Coltrane'sBlue Train. The guy looked too cool so I figured this might be the way to go. I rummaged some more for his name throughout the other CD’s and found another one with his name on it, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
I've always followed Miguel Zenon, Mark Turner, and Joel Frahm, they’re my favorites. Old School I love include Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Coltrane obviously, and Parker. I also follow guitarists, I love Adam Rogers, Gilad Hekselman, Pat Metheny, Jonathan Kreisberg, and a bunch of others.
CJ: I thought I heard a bit of Dexter’s influence in your style. I was going to describe you as somewhere between Blue Note era Wayne Shorter and a tenor-playing Kenny Garrett—especially after I thought I heard you quote a line from Shorter during “Por Ti Estoy.” Am I close?
RM: Ha, ha…well, I'm no one to judge how another person hears me.
CJ: What were the key moments or developments in your life/career that led to your ending up in Chicago to create this musical career?
RM: For starters, I got my Bachelors of Music from Loyola University in New Orleans 2006-2009. During my time there I met Mexican drummer Gustavo Cortinas, who now resides in Chicago. We became very close friends, and after Loyola he moved to Chicago to start his Master's at Northwestern. Being a Mexican national, he needed to keep educating himself to stay in the country and maintain his visa status. I stayed in Loyola for three more years.
But while I was living full time in New Orleans for three years, I did travel and spend time in New York and Puerto Rico. After those years passed as a full-time musician in New Orleans, it was time for a change in scenery to study more music and meet more people, so, with the advice of Gustavo, I considered Chicago. He seemed to be very happy there and, growing musically with him, I valued his opinion deeply.
So I applied, and got waitlisted to Northwestern. I did get in to a couple other universities but my heart was still set on Chicago. By the way, during my time in New Orleans, another hurricane hit after Katrina, and we were forced to leave the city by the government. And since I had no money to go to Puerto Rico to my family, I went to Chicago to see my girlfriend at the time. She surprised me by taking me to the Chicago Jazz Festival directly to see Sonny Rollins, and this was during the time Johnny Griffin died, and I saw a tribute to him at the Showcase. Those moments cemented Chicago in my mind as an amazing city. I literally fell in love with Chicago.
I remember at the jazzfest seeing a three-guitar band with Bobby Broom, and it blew my mind. The swing, the vocabulary, it was super different from New Orleans, not better, just different. So, I needed to come learn. Anyways, I got off the wait list because three people backed out of the ONLY master's sax position, and I got in to study with Victor Goines. And I am deeply in love with Chicago and feel so lucky that all of that happened.
CJ: Why do you think Chicago has become such a fertile place for the development of jazz musicians?
RM: Chicago has been a jazz hub for decades. That being said, in the six years I have been in Chicago, I've seen the jazz scene thrive and reach higher and higher thanks to promoters that keep the music flowing no matter what; educators that keep teaching; and veteran musicians mentoring younger musicians at jazz clubs, jam sessions, and in schools. The people genuinely care about the music, it shows and that's why jazz and the development of jazz musicianship is strong in Chicago. On top of all this is the audience. The general Chicago population loves jazz and comes to listen. And we have one of the biggest jazz festivals in the U.S.
CJ: I am curious about your Puerto Rican roots. Obviously, your music and affiliations reflect its influence and your identification with it. I suspect you have thoughts about the state of affairs there at present. Care to share?
RM: In the past couple of years, I've found myself missing my roots, feeling sad being away from home and hankering to be closer to my culture. This made me find my niche in Chicago's significant Puerto Rican community, particularly during my time working with the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. I taught a teen After-School Matters Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble class for two years and was also the music director for many out-of-town acts which needed to fill up their ranks with local musicians. SRBCC connected me with what I was missing and inspired me to pursue more Bomba and Plena. My desire to be closer to my roots ended up in me writing more towards my roots. Also, I just wanted to learn more about the music and history of my people, where SRBCC helped me monumentally.
CJ: Your new album, Remembranzas, evolved after you were commissioned by the Belvis Center to create a suite honoring Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. What is it about her work that inspires such a tribute?
RM: Burgos was one of the first female Latin American poets to fight for Latin American rights and female rights in the U.S. She led quite an open-minded, bohemian lifestyle and it interested me. Her poems are super heavy and many injustices and truths ring hard in them to this day. Her writing is also very rhythmic, that blends with the music well. Originally the music was set to poetry, and we took the poetry out to leave the jazz compositions.
CJ: The album’s liner notes indicate that the process from start to finish took a while. One thing was figuring out the band configuration that would satisfy your muse. How did you determine these guys were the "right" ones to perform your music for this creative occasion?
RM: I look for lots of different things in a band. Fine musicianship is first and foremost, but also members that are easy to work with, and can work as a team to better the music. Like jazz, I believe in a very democratic approach to music, and that requires an open mind and a willingness to adapt to one's environment. This particular album needed musicians that had roots in jazz and also had a knowledge of Afro-Caribbean music.
It's not like I was auditioning musicians, but only trying to find the right people. Especially since right before we recorded, we spent a month on tour doing the same thing we are doing now. And being on the road with the same people for a month is really taxing. So it's not just about the music. It’s a social investment, finding people that can work as a unit long term, which requires social skills along with much more.
CJ: The notes also alluded to the “remembranzas” concept as something that emerged from the group’s interaction.
RM: I wanted musicians that would help make this album something that we would remember together- a memory that marked us. That meant having musicians that are equally as invested in the music as I am. Personally, I wanted the process to naturally take its course and be as smooth as possible. In other words, we all wanted to be present in all aspects of the music, it wasn't just a job. From reimagining compositions to talking about band dynamics, aesthetics, etc.
CJ: While I understand your desire for the album to be an organic group statement, the end result still feels, to me, like a profound personal statement for you. Is this true?
RM: Well, during inception, yeah, definitely a personal statement. But isn't that how albums are? A personal statement from the leader with sidemen trying to visualize, absorb, contribute and join in as much as they can. I guess maybe not all albums are like that.
CJ: What’s next on the horizon for you?
RM: A lot, it’s a never-ending journey. I have a bunch of music videos I've been putting out regularly over the course of the past couple of months. I might keep doing that. Also, I have written a bunch of new songs I might record. Currently, as always, just working on surviving playing full time in Chicago and being a good musician! Practicing is time consuming and hard enough as it is!
Links related to Roy’s jazz activity in Asia: