Gay McIntyre, Old Jazz Hand

The 81-year-old sax player on performing at Gerry Anderson's funeral, meeting Nat King Cole and his forthcoming tour

Derry~Londonderry jazz legend Gay McIntyre plays both alto sax and clarinet with an elegance, an emotional power and a sense of beauty that are remarkable, and which mark him out as a musician of true international class.

How outrageous it is, then, that he was decades into his career, and in his late 70s, before he released his debut album, The Music Within Me, in 2011. The album was produced by trumpeter Linley Hamilton and featured McIntyre accompanied by Hamilton’s quartet on a repertoire of standards from the Great American Songbook. In true jazz fashion, the recording sessions were somewhat freewheeling.

‘We had no rehearsal,’ admits McIntyre. ‘We just called the tunes and played, with no run through or anything, and that was it. But the reaction from people was great and, I know it’s my album, but what satisfied me most was just to be part of it, with good musicians. And there’s nothing too way out about it, it’s pleasant enough to listen to.'

Audiences across Northern Ireland will be able to hear some of the songs on the album live when McIntyre tours various venues over the next few weeks. Amazingly, McIntyre’s career actually began in the 1940s. In an era before the advent of showbands, McIntyre began playing professionally, in the North West, in McNamara’s Band.

‘The dances were from 9pm until three in the morning, with oil lamps over the top of the stage and the smell of paraffin oil on the floor, and I was playing those when I was 13,’ he reminisces. ‘We played the pop tunes of the times, like Donald Peers songs.’

Within a few years, McIntyre was leading his own band under various names, which quickly became respected and popular on the circuit. ‘We were known as the Gay McIntyre Band or the Gay McIntyre Orchestra, depending on the place and promoter. Our repertoire was right across the board, from old time waltzes to up-tempo jazz numbers, and we did a lot of good arrangements.’

Even early in his career, McIntyre’s greatest musical love was jazz. He first heard the music as a child, when his father brought home a record by American clarinettist Artie Shaw. ‘When I heard that record I got very emotional,’ he recalls. ‘It was the improvisation. By the time I started to get a bit of technique and started to be able to play tunes, I was improvising immediately.’

Once, McIntyre and his band supported the legendary Nat King Cole in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. A life-changing opportunity was presented to McIntyre… and rejected. ‘At the interval two guys came and said to me, “Mr Cole would like to see you.” And as soon as I walked into his dressing room he said, “What age are you?” and I said, “18.”

‘“Perfect,” he says. “I want to take you to America. You’ve got a beautiful tone and it would be a sensation to have an Irishman in my group.”

‘But six weeks earlier I had planned to go on holiday with two friends. We only got sent two tickets from the airline so I said, “Well, we’ll toss up and the odd man out stays.” I was the odd man out – and the other two boys were killed when the plane hit the Isle Of Wight.

‘So I had no love of planes and I said, “How do you travel, Mr Cole?” And he said, “We fly at least once a day.” And I said, “Forget it.”’

McIntyre later joined the band on UTV’s hugely popular, daily light entertainment programme Teatime With Tommy. The programme was hosted by pianist Tommy James and was regarded at the time as unmissable entertainment.

McIntyre lived in Belfast for nine years. During those years the Troubles began and life for a gigging musician became dangerous. ‘It was hairy,’ he agrees. ‘Every time you came out of the house you’d be looking over your shoulder thinking, “I wonder if there are any of these guys about tonight?”

‘Once I was playing in a wee club. I walked around the corner, had a look, and as I was going back into the club these soldiers passed, going out. They’d jumped off their truck and lifted the amplifiers into the club. Later this guy walked over to me and said, “Oh, you’ve very good friends in the security forces, carrying your stuff.” And he threw a punch and I went down and four others piled in on top. I didn’t go back there again.’

McIntyre’s talents have always been unquestionable. Extraordinarily, however, he believes that now, at the age of 81, his playing has actually improved owing to his current regime of strenuous practice sessions. ‘You reach a peak and you’re doing pretty well in your playing and you then ask yourself: “Can I push any further forward?”

'And I’ve done that and my technique is now second to none. My playing would have been emotional, and still is, and because it was emotional I could cover up for the technique I didn’t have. But I’ve developed that technique now and I’m playing the best I ever have – and that’s due to enthusiasm on my own part.’

McIntyre recently played at the funeral of his friend, radio presenter Gerry Anderson, in Derry. His interpretation of ‘Danny Boy’ was one of the most moving parts of the service. ‘That was sad,’ sighs McIntyre, recalling the occasion.

‘Gerry was a great character and he had a terrific ability to put people at their ease. He had a great gift for that, and he never got into political camps. He didn’t want anything to do with heavy politics.

‘He actually played in my band for two years. He wouldn’t have been in the top ranks in the playing line but he was a pretty good player and he had his other talent, which was tremendous, as a communicator. That’s the one word that describes him.’

For McIntyre’s upcoming tour of theatres and arts centres, he will be accompanied by pianist John Leighton, bassist Rohan Armstrong and drummer David Lyttle, men who are virtually two generations younger than he is. He welcomes the generation gap. ‘I enjoy seeing young people coming along and it’s a very nice group,’ he says. ‘Young people bring a difference in exuberance and enthusiasm for the music.’

The repertoire on the tour will include songs from the Great American Songbook, and up-and-coming singer Victoria Geelan will feature on some classics from the Second World War. McIntyre enthuses about Geelan’s talents. ‘She has a real feel for jazz, that girl,’ he says. ‘She’s really excellent.’

Gay McIntyre and his band play the Marketplace Theatre, Armagh on September 5, the Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen on September 6, Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart on September 11, Theatre At The Mill, Newtownabbey on September 12, and Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on September 19.