Musicians and dancers honor Makanda Ken McIntyre
A tribute to an unsung jazz master
Makanda Ken McIntyre had a favorite aphorism for his jazz students. Think in terms of “both/and,’’ he liked to say, not “either/or.’’
McIntyre, the Boston native who left a generous academic legacy, a lengthy discography, and a colossal trove of unrecorded compositions when he died in June 2001, clearly practiced what he preached. On Saturday and Sunday at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall, the Makanda Project, a collective of 13 musicians devoted to interpreting McIntyre’s expansive repertoire, marks the 10th anniversary of his death and what would have been his 80th birthday with unique performances accompanied by New York choreographer Mickey Davidson and her dancers.
Davidson, who has worked with the music of kindred spirits, including Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, burst into spontaneous dance at the memorial service for McIntyre, a few days after Sept. 11, 2001.
“The funeral included a ton of music, as you can imagine,’’ recalls Joy Rosenthal, McIntyre’s widow, “and she got up and danced. And it was beautiful, fabulous - very moving.’’ Rosenthal, a New York lawyer specializing in family mediation who has organized her late husband’s lifework online (www.mkmjazz.com), recently recommended Davidson to John Kordalewski, the pianist who is the Makanda Project’s de facto leader.
After growing up in the vibrant West Indian community of Boston’s South End and playing around the city’s busy jazz scene in the 1950s, McIntyre left Boston for New York in 1960, around the time he cut an album for Prestige Records with fellow multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. Though McIntyre had top billing, he would not get many more big-label opportunities as a leader.
Yet his reputation among his peers hardly dimmed. In 1966 he joined Taylor’s band on the pianist’s atonal landmark “Unit Structures.’’ Years later, he toured the globe with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.
Davidson knew McIntyre from his long tenure at SUNY College at Old Westbury on Long Island, where he became an early innovator in the field of jazz studies.
“What impressed me about him was that the music went throughout his body,’’ says the dancer, on the phone from New York. “He moved as he played.’’
She once attended a social dance with McIntyre and his first wife, Charlotte (known as Charshee), and she came away impressed.
“He swung out,’’ says Davidson. “They were doing the Lindy Hop, and they were right in the pocket. For me, the physicality of his music was very natural.’’
Davidson and her dancers toss aside fixed routines in favor of interpretative movement.
“We play with the time,’’ she says. “Sometimes we’re working inside the musicians’ time. Sometimes we’re working against their time. My approach is to visualize the compositions.’’
Kordalewski, who has steered the Makanda Project through an ever-changing roster over seven years, will meet Davidson for the first time when she arrives for rehearsal today. Yet he already feels like they are good friends.
“We’ve been sending CDs and DVDs to each other,’’ he says. “She’s been so easy to work with and talk to.’’ In a sense, Davidson has been preparing for this collaboration since McIntyre’s death 10 years ago.
“It’s not like we’re throwing this together,’’ says Kordalewski.
The Makanda Project focuses on McIntyre’s unrecorded compositions, many of which his widow discovered in various drawers and folders and on scraps of paper after his death.
“We’re not a ghost band,’’ Kordalewski stresses. “The fact that there’s no record of him playing any of these pieces means it’s up to us to make the pieces our own.’’
McIntyre picked up the alto saxophone like his youthful idol, Charlie Parker, and soon made himself proficient on oboe, flute, bass clarinet, and bassoon, as well as bass, drums, and piano. Though his compositions were progressive, often considered “out’’ - as a teacher, he urged students to avoid rehearsing standard licks - they retained a lightness and a melodic sense that engages even audiences of jazz novices, says Kordalewski.
“As a composer, I kind of think of him as the next step after Wayne Shorter,’’ says the pianist. “He created very beautiful tunes and melodies, with experimental structures.’’ McIntyre was undoubtedly influenced by Parker, he says, “yet he, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman were the alto players who broke the pattern of just playing Charlie Parker’s language. They took it to a more abstract level.’’
Though McIntyre spent the last 40 years of his life in New York (another tribute took place there last month), he made plenty of time for his hometown.
“He always kept his Boston roots,’’ says Rosenthal, who met the musician when she was a student at Smith College and married him years later, after Charlotte’s death. In his later years McIntyre led an annual master class at the New England Conservatory; just weeks before he died he performed at the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill. He also came back often to visit his mother and his sister, Eileen, who died a few weeks before he did.
McIntyre’s big spirit was evident at his funeral, recalls Rosenthal: “I kept saying there’s a lot of love in the room.’’
And it carries on.
“He had such high integrity,’’ says Kordalewski. “We always hope we’re doing justice to him.’’