Eamonn McCann - Do ye know Gay McIntyre?

Gaye McIntyre and the band playing at the Limavady Jazz and Blues festival. (1206JB84)
Gaye McIntyre and the band playing at the Limavady Jazz and Blues festival. (1206JB84)

I bumped into Gay McIntyre on the bus to Dublin a while back. I was headed for a union meeting at the ICTU, he had a gig at a jazz café in Wicklow Street. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I know Gay didn’t have a bad word to say about anybody, because that’s how I’ve always known him to be.

We said cheerio at the bottom of Grafton Street. I remember glancing after him as he strolled purposefully along, carrying his clarinet in a neat leather case at his side, a professional man on his way to work, and wondered at the casual nature of my encounter with one of the unchallengeable musical geniuses Ireland has produced in the last 50 years.

There is something both shocking and unremarkable about the fact Gay’s face wasn’t all over the launch of City of Culture.

If part of the point is to show off our cultural wares to the world, a world music star from Derry should surely have been front and centre?

It is a positive thing about Derry that we don’t awe easily.

But that sometimes means we fail to acknowledge accomplishments on our doorstep that we should be marvelling at.

The people in jazz who over the years have marvelled at Gay’s mastery of the music include Humphrey Lyttleton, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk, Nat King Cole.

The only Irish jazz musician of comparable stature has been Louis Stewart, recognised around the world as one of the top guitarists of any era.

I once mentioned to Louis during a television recording that I knew Gay McIntyre.

We were half an hour into the interview, for the RTE arts programme Exhibit A, but he stopped, rose and reached over to shake my hand. (And I think he took me a bit more seriously for the rest of the interview.)

Gay has been a professional musician since the age of 14, formed his first band at 16.

His debut gigs in Derry were in the Apprentice Boys’ Hall.

He put in a shift around the dance halls across the island, spent a number of years as a travelling jazz troubadour in England, joined the Clipper Carlton for two years. (The only other showband that came close to the Clipper in terms of musicianship was the Freshmen, also essentially from Strabane. Strange, that.)

Gay was a music teacher and inspector across the Western Board area for upwards of 20 years.

For a period he was simultaneously a member of the BBC Northern Ireland and RTE orchestras.

He never stopped playing pub gigs. He made music amid the mayhem of Belfast at the height of the troubles.

He once assembled a pick-up marching band to lead the May Day march New Orleans-style through Derry.

He’s done a bit of everything, and always done jazz.

It’s surprising sometimes, the musical memories that stay vivid in the mind.

I have only hazy recall of close-up attendance at concerts by some huge stars. But I can still hear with pin-point clarity from many years ago Gay on the saxophone beautifully enhancing a Helen Brady rendition of “Passing Strangers”.

Who’s to say how far or high Gay might have gone if he’d ever taken leave of Derry and bestowed his music elsewhere. But like many another, he found it hard to leave.

The call of the homeplace apart, he’s one of those people with an irrational fear of flying. So he stayed.

Which is by no means a reason for regret or indulgence in thoughts of what-might-have-been.

It should rather be a source of satisfaction and pride for the town that he’s still living ‘round the corner.

Every year, civic leaders praise Derry, and by implication themselves, for the success - certainly the commercial success - of the jazz festival in May. But there are two recurrent weaknesses in the event.

The first is that the jazz content of the occasion has become somewhat diluted. A gig by a popular singer or a rock star, however respected, does not a jazz concert make.

Maybe that’s unreasonable, perhaps a form of cultural snobbery.

What’s not unreasonable is to observe that anywhere else the event would be known as The Gay McIntyre Jazz Festival.