‘I’ve played with the best in the world’ - Gay at 80

Gay McIntyre pictured with his family at a surprise 80th birthday party held in his honour at the Playhouse on Sunday night. Included is his wife, Irene, children, their sons-in-law and grandchildren. 0105JM01
Gay McIntyre pictured with his family at a surprise 80th birthday party held in his honour at the Playhouse on Sunday night. Included is his wife, Irene, children, their sons-in-law and grandchildren. 0105JM01
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A name familiar to many in the city and far beyond, jazz octogenarian Gay McIntyre has carved a reputation thanks to his superb skills in saxophone, clarinet, flute and violin.

Regarded as one of Derry’s most famous sons, there is little that Gay hasn’t done or seen during almost seven decades performing live.

On 28 April 1933, Gay was born in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, but only stayed there a week before moving to Derry - where he has since remained. Despite many tempting offers of fame and fortune over the years, his family - and his heart - remain firmly rooted in Derry where he now boasts a devoted wife, Irene, four daughters, two sons and seven grandchildren.

But where did it all begin, I wonder? Gay remembers all too well his first introduction to music.

“An American sailor gave my father a record one night and when he played it the next day, I had a huge reaction - I actually cried when I first heard it,” he reveals.

“I was probably about ten years-old and that was me hooked. It was Artie Shaw and the record was just called Blues Side 1 and Side 2. But there was no money around then and it took my mother and father two years to save £17 to buy me a clarinet - my first instrument.”

“There was no such thing as a silver-spoon job back then,” he goes on.

“As soon as I got this new instrument, my father told me I had ten days to be ready to work, and I had to be! A man in Bundoran was looking for a player at the time, so my father said “my son will play”, and so I had to be ready! I was probably around 13 years-old then, and the gig was from 9pm until 3am in the morning!

“It was hard going, but I loved it. I loved the playing and the audiences. We had no money, but they were great days.”

Gay began to make his living playing music. Suddenly, the future looked promising.

“I’ve played with the best in the world,” Gay says today with some pride. “That was my ambition when I started playing the clarinet, you know. It was never about money. My parents saw it as a great way to get extra money into the house, but, to me, It was all about learning to play like these guys on the records. And I achieved my ambition and did end up playing with the best of them...”

And the array of stars that Gay has met over the years reads like a who’s who of legendary masters.

“Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball played with me once, and I played with Louis Stewart, and Benny Goodman. In my opinion, one of the best musicians who came out of this country, John Trotter from the Waterside, is a fantastic player. He and his daughter Fiona, are the tops.”

“Nat King Cole also asked me to accompany him to America once too. I had no sense at that age and I didn’t know, and when I said to my father, he said “don’t you be going to those places, they’ll be full of drugs and drink” - if only he saw things now!” he laughed.

“So I never went. But Nat King Cole told me I would be a sensation in America and I would be the first white man in his group. We were playing the first half of a concert in the Opera House in Belfast, and he was playing the second half - that’s where he heard me.”

Gay, whose real name is George Albert, played in many bands over the years. But he also taught music across the Western Board.

“I often used to travel around as many as twelve schools a week teaching instruments and taught many people who are now teachers themselves. My daughter Karla teaches now too. Sometimes people would stop me in the street, and it was lovely to think that people appreciated it enough to come over and say hello.”

“One of the disappointing things I noticed when I was teaching kids was that quite a few of them were excellent musicians, but after spending five years studying, they just lost the enthusiasm and gave it up. I always found that quite sad.”

“Music is all about enjoying yourself,” he adds. “It shouldn’t be competitive to the degree of which you’d walk over anybody. That shouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, musicians themselves are probably the greatest transgressors in that respect! But just enjoying the music is what it all comes down to in the end.”

Retirement eventually beckoned for Gay. “I gave up teaching when I retired 14 years ago and I’d had enough of it by then,” he says.

“That gave me more time to concentrate on my music, but the amazing thing is that I’m actually busier now than I was when I was working on the music full-time, that’s crazy, isn’t it?”

Despite advancing years, Gay remains a committed jazz man and likes to keep busy.

“I thought I’d have tonnes of time to do what I liked when I retired. I thought I’d be fed up, but I’m still here, there and everywhere. I play jazz mostly nowadays. I still get out and about and still do things outside Derry and do my best not to let my age hold me back. It’s nothing that a couple of pints wouldn’t cure!

“I don’t care about age really. I don’t feel 80, I’d say I feel about 45!” he chuckles.

“I loved the life. I still love it. I get more time now to concentrate on trying to be more musical. I don’t want any stress at all. When I do the music, I work terribly hard and really concentrate on it. People don’t realise but it’s still heavy work. There’s an awful lot of mental work involved in performing, not just physical.”

With the hindsight 80 years can inevitably bring, I ask Gay how the world has changed in his time.

“Not for the better. That’s the saddening thing,” he replies. “There are so many people out there who can’t even get a proper chance in life, it’s all about money grabbers. This town is full of would-be millionaires and from what I’ve seen of all that, it doesn’t do anybody any good.

“The best thing in life to be is charitable, both in your thoughts and in your deeds and how you help others.”

Catch Gay this Friday, May 3, at 3pm in Rocking Chair with guitarist Joe Quigley. On Saturday, May 4, from 12.30pm at Tower Hotel, again with Joe Quigley. “Joe is an absolutely terrific guitar player and a top class man, we’ve been playing together for years,” he says.

But the main event will be at The Playhouse on Sunday afternoon from 3pm.

“I’ll be playing with Louis Stewart and Paul McIntyre, my son, who plays piano,” Gay adds. “Paul has had a tumultuous year. He’s just got his doctorate in music and won a major media award with a lucrative cash prize from the European Union too. It’ll be a great gig.”

And so, with yet another busy weekend ahead of him at the City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, Derry’s most revered jazz maestro concludes: “I love Derry all my life and the Derry people indeed. There’s no question about it.”