Puerto Rican tenor saxophonist upends stereotypes to carve his own musical path.
By Don Macica –
At some point in the summer of 2015, Roy McGrath’s name became ubiquitous, so much so that I began to wonder, “Who is this guy?”
First, I noticed that his quintet was performing at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival. A few weeks after that, I was having lunch with the owner of Sabor a Café, a Colombian restaurant that presents live music on weekends. “Roy McGrath, man, ooo, you gotta hear him.” I finally heard him in early September when he joined the groove-jazz backing band of Puerto Rican rapper Siete Nueve at Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. A week later I caught him backing up master percussionist Michael Spiro at Sabor a Café, and a week after that I unexpectedly stumbled across him in a comparsa de plena as part of the Chicago World Music Festival. He led a Latin jazz ensemble in a project that matched original music to poetry a week later, and shortly after that I learned he was taking his straight-ahead quartet, with whom he had recorded Martha, an excellent CD of original compositions (and a couple of well chosen covers), on a month-long tour of Mexico.
And then there was this mystery: How could a 6’2” white guy with the name McGrath be a Puerto Rican? I needed to get to the bottom of this, so when he returned from Mexico we made arrangements to meet for coffee, which was remarkably easy to do because it turned out we were neighbors.
“When I was around 15 and in high school, a friend gave me her father’s saxophone because she heard me say that I wanted to play one. It supposedly belonged to a member of El Gran Combo, who gave it to her father, and it was in horrible shape, really beat up. Two weeks later, I was playing a gig in front of 5,000 people at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.”
McGrath pauses, no doubt reading the incredulity on my face. “Oh. Well, I had a friend who had a reggae band, and they were opening up for Israel Vibration. My friend wanted horns in this gig because Israel Vibration had horns in their band. I sounded terrible, and I did for a long time.”
He continues, “A couple of weeks later I went to the San Juan Borders store and bought two CDs out of their bargain bin: John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. That was it. I knew I wanted to play jazz.”
McGrath had a friend who played guitar and they formed a quartet which almost immediately scored a gig making $50 a week. He was already a working jazz musician, learning and playing the standards.
Things changed less than a year later. “I was in a bad car accident when I was 16, and that experience really made me reflect and get serious about playing. I replaced the beat up horn with a new one.”
I should point out that while McGrath is serious about his work ethic, he is more modest, even critical, of his talent. I should also point out that, a little more than a year after first picking up a horn, McGrath was offered a 3/4 scholarship by Loyola University in New Orleans to study music.
“Yeah, New Orleans,” McGrath says. “I was offered scholarships to a few schools, but I wanted to study jazz. Of course I picked New Orleans.”
McGrath completed his undergraduate work in three years, but hung around the Crescent City for two more, soaking up culture and seeking knowledge. “I loved New Orleans. It felt like home. It was hot, so that felt right. The traditions there are similar to the Caribbean. People say ‘Hi’ to you on the street, and you could become friends just like that. It was also musically similar to Puerto Rico in the way that music is heard everywhere. They blast jazz like we blast salsa.”
And, of course, he was working as often as he could, playing in brass bands, jazz bands, funk bands. “Never turn down a gig,” he says. “You’ll always learn something.”
After five years in New Orleans, McGrath arrived in Chicago in 2012 to continue his studies at Northwestern University, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. “It was great. Like, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is on the faculty there! I studied directly with Victor Goines, who heads up the jazz department.” He recorded Martha a few months later with a quartet formed with fellow Northwestern grads.
I ask him why he remained here after graduation instead of moving to, say, New York. “Chicago, man. What a great music city. The jazz scene here is epic. There are so many good players. Some of the best in the world are here. The salsa scene is amazing as well. There’s a brass band and funk scene, even reggae. Everything’s here! Plus, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans, so I don’t miss my culture. If I’m homesick, I can just go down to La Bomba for dinner.”
His ‘never turn down a gig’ work ethic remains strong. On the morning we met, he had just returned from an out of state gig with a merengue band. “Merengue is hard, man, all these rapid, percussive runs. Not at all like jazz or salsa. I learned a few things.”
McGrath has another habit that influences his growth as a musician. He is completely unafraid to seek out established musicians he admires and talk to them. “It’s like playing all the different kinds of music, but in addition to practical knowledge, you might learn something spiritual or cultural from their experiences, and that’s valuable too.”
The saxophonist has two projects as a leader coming up in the near future. First, he’ll lead a straight-ahead sextet in January performing what, for him, was a seminal jazz influence—the entire John Coltrane Blue Train album. “We’re in pretty intense rehearsals right now, because I want to honor ‘Trane, not copy him.” The performance is presented by the Jazz Record Art Collective, a monthly series at the Fulton Street Collective in Chicago, and visual artist Sarah Mueller will paint as McGrath’s sextet plays.
The other is a further extension of the Latin jazz project he first created last fall for Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and The 606 called Julia al Son de Jazz, in which original compositions are performed with one or possibly two poets reciting the words of Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos. “I’m trying to get two voices, one female and the other male, so I can arrange the tonal quality like I would with different horns.” Sabor a Café is presenting the project in February.
The two very different gigs are illustrative of McGrath’s artistic ambitions. “I don’t want to be categorized as a ‘Latin’ musician because I consider myself primarily a straight-ahead player. At the same time, I’m Puerto Rican and my culture is invested in what I create. I really admire Miguel Zenón. He doesn’t play Latin jazz, but he came up playing in salsa bands and everything he’s done and learned is in his music.”
He hopes to study with Zenón sometime soon. “I feel that I’m finally ready. Before this, I would have been wasting his time.” McGrath’s modesty is on display once more, but if you’re keeping score, you’ll realize that he’s barely a decade out of high school and already possesses degrees from two of the best music schools in the country. He also makes a living in music, gigging in one band or another several nights a week in addition to leading two of his own. “Oh, yeah, I never want to go back to making pizzas or washing dishes.”
And, in case you’re still wondering about the name. “My father was a half Irish Mexican-American from Texas who moved to Puerto Rico, where he met my mom, who is German-American and was born in Thailand but grew up on the island, so she considers herself as boricua.” This fairly complex multi-cultural background perhaps offers a clue to McGrath’s artistic goals. Jazz itself is a confluence of cultures, rising as it did out of New Orleans, where the African Diaspora met and mingled with French, Spanish and other influences, including the ‘Latin tinge’ of the Caribbean. It is the United States’ great gift to the rest of the world, and McGrath is determined to take his music there. “Besides the Mexican tour, I’ve already played in China and I want to go back soon.”
I hope he continues to call Chicago home for a long time to come.
John Coltrane’s Blue Train by the Roy McGrath Sextet – Wednesday, January 20, 9pm at the Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St, Chicago. jazzrecordartcollective.com
Julia al Son de Jazz with The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet – Friday, February 12, 9pm at Sabor a Café, 2435 W. Peterson, Chicago. No cover, but reservations are recommended. saboracaferestaurant.com
About the author: Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts Marketing Services and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.