Claire Daly’s ‘Mary Joyce Project’

The baritone saxophonist pays homage to some incredible family history

Chances are you’ve never heard of Mary Joyce, but check out her story because it’s a grabber. Back in the mid-1930s, this young, feisty Wisconsinite became the first non-Alaskan native to make the 1,000-mile trek from Juneau to Fairbanks via dogsled. The three-month trip was treacherous, but Mary, aided by local Tlingit Native American guides, kept going until she completed the perilous journey. Having accomplished that, she returned to and spent the rest of her life in Juneau, running supplies for the Allies during World War II by dogsled, opening and operating a saloon that exists to this day, and otherwise being remarkable.


Claire Daly

For Claire Daly, a New York-based baritone saxophonist and composer, this wasn’t some obscure tale stumbled upon while thumbing through National Geographic in the dentist’s office: Mary Joyce—who passed away in 1976—was her father’s first cousin, and the story is one she’s known since childhood, when Joyce briefly visited Daly’s family in Yonkers, N.Y. “She was unlike anybody that I had ever met,” says Daly. And now, several albums into her career, Daly has drawn inspiration from Joyce’s life and created music of it: Mary Joyce Project: Nothing to Lose (Daly Bread) collects 11 songs built around the theme of Joyce’s life and feats. Working with pianist Steve Hudson (who wrote or co-wrote several of the tunes), bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, drummer Peter Grant and human beat box Napoleon Maddox, Daly—who also plays alto sax and flute on the album—ruminates on the determination and freedom inherent in her late relative’s colorful narrative.

“I wanted to bring attention to her. She was really a pioneer in 1935,” says Daly, calling from her Manhattan home. Daly and Hudson discussed the various aspects of Joyce’s daring journey, and then translated their emotions and thoughts into songs with titles such as “Gotta Go,” “Lonely Wilderness” and “Who’s Crazy?” The lead track, “Guidance,” is dedicated to the Native Americans who rode with Joyce for much of the way, while “Tippin’” is for the lead dog on Joyce’s team, Tip. Daly’s lone sung vocal takes place on Hudson’s “Shine,” and there’s a spoken-word section in the jointly penned finale, “Epilogue,” that explains the inspiration behind the songs.

Prior to writing and recording the album, Daly made a trip to Alaska with her older cousin Mary Ann Greiner, who had known Mary Joyce. Together they explored some of the sites where Joyce lived and worked. “Mary Ann introduced me to a lot of people who knew Mary,” says Daly. “I went to all of her old stomping grounds. She gave me a strong sense of Mary’s life. That was the research phase.”

The composing followed, Daly and Hudson each bringing bits and pieces of ideas to the table. For two years they developed their concepts, sometimes separately and sometimes together. “We came up with characteristics or ideas that we wanted to convey in the music,” says Daly. The recording was cut in New York at Nola Studios, with Daly producing. “We were fully composed and rehearsed by the time we went into the studio. When I go into the studio I want it to be a record of what we sounded like that day. I’m not someone who does a lot of editing and changing around. I prefer jazz CDs to be honest that way.”

Daly is something of an adventurer herself. Female baritone saxophonists are rare in jazz, but since she was a child she’s known what she wanted to do. “It was in the early ’70s, and I was very young and went to a big-band concert,” she says about her first exposure to jazz. “I flipped out! I screamed! For me it was like seeing the Beatles. I went around to get autographs and I said to my father, ‘I would do anything to be on that [tour] bus.’ Youthful enthusiasm, to be sure, but it was sincere and it propelled me into my life.”

Her instrument, Daly says, “chose me. First I played alto, then flute and tenor. Then I tried a baritone and it blew my head open. I said, ‘This is where I live.’ I really felt like I found my voice when I played the baritone. I took to it right away.” Daly played in rock and jazz bands while coming up, including the all-female DIVA Jazz Orchestra, and she’s recorded several previous albums as a leader. But she sees Mary Joyce Project as a departure, in that she found a new sense of freedom during the time she worked on it. “In the past there were these things called ‘record companies,’ something called ‘the music business,’” she deadpans. “There were categories that things had to fit into. Now, for better or worse, since the music business has blown up, anything goes. I feel that I can make the records I want to make.”

Freedom and determination—the same qualities that drove her dad’s cousin—drive Daly 75 years later. “You’ve just got to keep going,” she says. “You’ve got to keep inventing. Across the board that’s pretty much my philosophy, just keep inventing.”

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