By Bob Weinberg Claire Daly honors a 98-year-old jazz fan and the New York City…
By Bob Weinberg
Claire Daly honors a 98-year-old jazz fan and the New York City scene that nurtures her.
In advance of a Streamyard conversation in late June, Claire Daly emails her interviewer that she’ll be on the link shortly. But first she must attend to a bit of business: moving her car. “A NYC thing,” she explains of the ritual of moving one’s car at a certain time on a certain day when the street cleaners make their rounds.
It’s an appropriate prelude to a discussion of the baritone saxophonist’s current release, VuVu for Frances (Daly Bread), an album that bespeaks Daly’s hometown from its vintage William Gottlieb cover image of 52nd Street to musical selections that begin with the Sinatra signature “All the Way” and conclude with a jaunty “I’ll Take Manhattan.” The rhythm section accompanying Daly and tenor saxophonist George Garzone comprises in-demand denizens of the New York jazz scene, further contributing to what might be described as a “New York jazz sound.”
“What does that even mean?” Daly demurs, before conceding “there is a vibe. … Who knows what levels things work on? Because my homage to Frances is deep and probably it’s on many levels. So I might have an intention to honor her as a great New Yorker and it might come out in the music in some way I can’t define or try to do.”
The Frances to which Daly alludes is Frances Ballantyne, a 98-year-old jazz fan she befriended about 25 years ago. Ballantyne has been haunting the clubs of Manhattan since the 1940s, when they were frequented by Sidney Bechet, Willie “The Lion” Smith and other jazz pioneers. Back in the day, an evening out might have started with a show on 52nd Street and ended with Ballantyne and her cohorts running up to Harlem to catch a late set or two.
“One of the things about Frances that’s really amazing is that her soul is nourished by real jazz,” Daly says. “She’s come to my gigs as long as I’ve known her, and I’d say she’s one of the most savvy listeners. One time after a gig I said, ‘Well, what did you think, Frances?’ She said, ‘Well, the drummer wasn’t really listening.’ Now that’s a pretty astute comment. She really listens in a deep way.”
Daly’s relationship with tenorist Garzone dates back even further. As a freshman at Berklee College of Music, she would regularly attend Garzone’s shows at Michael’s Pub in Boston with his avant-garde trio The Fringe. Although she didn’t understand what they were playing, she was significantly impacted to come back again and again. When Michael’s was in need of a bartender, Garzone recommended Daly, who gratefully accepted. And when Daly was in need of a tenor player for her 1999 debut recording, Swing Low, she contacted her old pal.
In discussions with Garzone for the new record, she warned him that it would comprise mostly standards, some of which would be selected by Ballantyne. “And he goes, ‘Great. I’ll do the vuvu,’” Daly relates, defining the term as a “nice, airy, melodic saxophone sound.” During a decidedly non-vuvu moment, the saxophonists engage in a wild, avant freakout toward the end of the show tune “The Lonely Goatherd.” “I think Frances would want me to make it clear, that’s not one of the ones she would have picked,” Daly says. “It just went ballistic on its own. My connection to George, initially, was through The Fringe, so it was really fun for me to just cut loose and play some free music.”
Other selections are more reflective of the era in which Ballantyne was most active, including her favorite song, Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley.” The evocative “Harlem Nocturne” and “Mood Indigo” would also have issued from bandstands and jukeboxes of the time. And while Daly folds in more modern fare by way of Charles Lloyd and a couple of songs by pianist Steve Kuhn, they all sound of a piece.
Living in New York has afforded Daly the opportunity to interact with women who provide a privileged glimpse into an earlier jazz era. In addition to Ballantyne, the saxophonist befriended neighbors such as the now nonagenarian vocalist Sheila Jordan and the filmmaker Jean Bach, who helmed the documentary A Great Day in Harlem. “I have really gravitated toward women who have lived in jazz,” she says. “There’s a lot of cool women — these jazzwomen — who’ve lived in the music all this time. I love them.”
Featured photo by Judy Schiller.