top of page

Roy McGrath from Puerto Rico to Chicago

Saxophonist Roy McGrath moved to the mainland from Puerto Rico in search of a jazz education, formal and informal, and he certainly found it. Special programs and scholarships at Berklee, New Orleans prestigious Loyola, and a Masters degree from Northwestern University no less. This well traveled young man has a CD release party this week and I thought it a good time to find out what makes him tick........ GORDON ON MCGRATH Kimberly Gordon:When was the first moment you realized you had musical talent? Roy McGrath:Sounds like a trick question haha... I'm still trying to figure out if I have musical talent! For me it's been years of practice and good teachers that have made me progress. I would say that my journey began in fourth grade when the music teacher at my school asked me to form part of the choir. I looked forward to those three days a week were we would sing... It was the highlight of my childhood. From fourth grade all through twelfth grade I sang in the school choir. I picked up the guitar in tenth grade and the saxophone in eleventh. I got serious about the saxophone really quickly, and a car crash in my hometown (Puerto Rico) opened my eyes towards the desire of pursuing a life as a musician. I honestly didn't think I could call it a career until my second year at Loyola University New Orleans (Bachelor's Degree). I started working so much that the thought popped in my head: "Hey, I can really do this all the time?! This is amazing!" Kimberly Gordon:Who else in your family has talent? Roy McGrath:My younger brother is a painter living in San Francisco. My father is a farmer and my mother is a retired human resources manager. My mom and dad aren't musically talented per se, but boy, have they taught me stuff in life! Kimberly Gordon:Was there a teacher by name that helped you along your musical life path? Yes, three of them. Julio Suarez: My high school music teacher, who was the first person to actually introduce me to music. Through his classes and direction I fell in love with music. He planted the seed. Carli Muñoz: Carli played piano with the Beach Boys for eleven years and came back to Puerto Rico to open up a jazz club. His albums feature Eddie Gomez, David Sanchez, and Chicago's own Jack Dejohnette. Carli was my first jazz mentor, I used to jam at his club for years, then I graduated to playing the weekend sets with his band, and now we are more friends than mentor-mentee relationship. Carli helped me take my first "jazz steps". Victor Goines: When I moved to Chicago to study at Northwestern University I began a long relationship with my private instructor Victor Goines. He taught me music, yes. However, the bulk of my apprenticeship under his guidance was about life. Mr. Goines fine tuned my musicianship and gave me wisdom to make strong future life choices. In the two years that I've known him, I've grown exponentially. I have an unlimited amount of gratitude towards this man. Kimberly Gordon:Tell us about your first gig? Roy McGrath:My first gig was two weeks after picking up the saxophone! A reggae group led by a friend of mine was opening for "Israel Vibration" one of Jamaica's biggest reggae ensembles at el "Anfiteatro Tito Puente", one of the island's biggest amphitheaters. The opening band decided to include horns, so they invited me and my friend Miguel Lopez to play with them. We had to make up our own lines to their songs while figuring out the fingerings for each note, and finding a way to write it down without knowing music! Me and Miguel had two or three really long and intense practice sessions in the two weeks of preparation we had before the gig. Our "sheet music" looked insane, the craziest combination of symbols, letters, arrows, and bullet points. We managed to do it! How I have no idea. Kimberly Gordon:What is the jazz scene like in Puerto Rico? Roy McGrath:The jazz scene in Puerto Rico is strong. We have a couple of universities (Universidad Interamericana, Universidad de Puerto Rico) and the local conservatory (Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico) with strong professors that have real experience playing the music. People like professor and bassist Samuel Morales Correa, whom was born in the Bronx and came to the island later, has dedicated his life to teaching upcoming musicians. Saxophonist Norberto (Tiko) Ortiz, drummer Raul Maldonado, pianist Luis Marin, guitarist Luis Raul Romero, and countless other professors that are instilling real knowledge into the students there. There are many performance opportunities on the island. We have one primary jazz festival (Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival) and about ten to fifteen minor ones throughout the year. I personally know of three jam sessions that are regular in Puerto Rico, and others pop up from time to time. The musicians my age are really making strides.... Jonathan Suazo is a alto saxophonist from Puerto Rico who grew up with me and is playing with a lot of influential people. His last CD was produced by Miguel Zenon and he is currently releasing another one this friday the 21st. People like him, Elvis Teran, Bryan Perez Ceron, Gabriel Vicens, Leonardo Osuna, and a couple hundred others that are creating original music. The connection to the US is also very strong, many jazz musicians from Puerto Rico have either moved to the mainland, or spent time there and come back home. International stars like David Sanchez, Miguel Zenon, Henry Cole, Paoli Mejias, Eddie Gomez, Duke Ellington's own Juan Tizol, these have paved the way for the younger generation of Puerto Rican musicians. In short, the jazz scene, is strong. Kimberly Gordon:What is your most memorable career moment so far? Roy McGrath:I have so many answers to that question. So I'll give them all. 1) Having the courage to sit by Cedar Walton during his set break at the Jazz Showcase last year and ask him a million questions. He sat there (somewhat skeptical at first) and answered all of them. I shared a coffee break with a genius and master of the music I love, and he kindly opened his heart to me. And a couple months later he passed from this world. This is probably the most memorable moment of my musical career. 2) I just got back from a one month tour in China with my jazz quartet, playing all my original music stemming from my new release "Martha" which has been out since November 1st. Never in my life I thought I would go to China.... and Jazz brought me there! Jazz has opened a world of opportunities for me... 3) A few times the heroes I admire have asked me to play with them. Henry Cole from Puerto Rico, and Ted Sirota here in Chicago. My experiences playing with these fine musicians have helped me grow so much. 4) Conversations. All the conversations I've had throughout my musicial career. I've talked deeply with a bunch of musicians that have really helped me grow and it's been so important to me to hear their opinions on jazz and the lifestyle we live. Kimberly Gordon:Who did you listen to today? Roy McGrath: Errol Garner's "Concert by The Sea" Herbie Hancock's "Empyrean Isles" And lot's of salsa music! (Currently working on a transcription project) Kimberly Gordon:Can you tell us about the interesting projects you are working on right now? Roy McGrath:I just released (Nov. 1) an album for jazz quartet titled "Martha" under my own name. “Martha” by the Roy McGrath Quartet is a series of eight compositions that encompass a homage to family, friends, and the human connection. Three arrangements and five originals pieces that reflect all ambits of relationships: healing, love, loss, dishonor, spirituality, gratitude, and others. Through these eight compositions I attempt to portray in sound the last four years of my life. The album is dedicated to my grandmother, Martha Albelo whom was an amazing influence on my character and person. I'm also working on a collaborative project with a Chinese and Australian production team in China (Lei & Le SoundArt LTD). This international collaboration has resulted to be incredibly educational and eye opening towards cross culture business exchanges and the making of music in general. There are also a couple projects here in Chicago, however, it is not of good taste to talk about those yet. Kimberly Gordon:What is your favorite "foodie" destination in Chicago? Roy McGrath:Oh boy... 1) Ghareeb Nawaz-Indian & Pakistan eatery on Devon Ave. in Rogers Park. Open 24 hours, delicious, and... cheap! 2) Ciao Amore Italian Ristorante- Located on West 18th Street in Pilsen. The best Italian food I've had in Chicago. 3) The Common Cup: Located on Morse Ave. in Rogers Park. Their lemon poppy seed muffin....seriously. Not to mention good coffee! 4) Bagel Art- Evanston based bagel sandwiches and good ones! 5) La Bruqueña- Puerto Rican food in Humbolt Park.... A taste of home. 6) Grandma J's Local Kitchen- You wouldn't believe how amazing this little breakfast/americana place is. Their Chicken and Waffles are the best in the city. If you believe otherwise we need to talk ASAP! I have to stop! Kimberly Gordon:If you could spend time with one entertainer, alive or dead, who would it be and how would you spend your time? Roy McGrath:Hmm. The first thing that popped into my mind was to spend Thanksgiving with Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Bobby McFerrin and our respective families. You know, eat some turkey and stuffing, laugh and wind up singing Don't Worry Be Happy! I would also love to get coffee with Einstein, Debussy and his translator, and Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez! Kimberly Gordon:I'd like to have coffee at that round table as well! Great picks, thanks for your candid responses. I feel Chicago will learn alot about you from this interview, have a fantastic CD release party! Roy McGrath CD release party Friday, December 12th 8pm Sabor a Café No cover, buy some food and drink! 2435 W. Peterson 773.878.6327

bottom of page