Last week Rodney Whitaker played bass with Sasha Vasandani at the Dirty dog. Rodney’s wife Cookie was also in the house. I spent some time talking to both of them. They talked proudly of their seven children. This is not the image of a jazz musician that I remember seeing in the movies. It is, however, a pretty common approach to life with Detroit jazz musicians, especially artists who could be successful anywhere in the world but choose to stay put in Detroit. Detroit is known to be a place where you can hang with other great players and also comfortably raise a family.
This week Gayelynn McKinney’s family and friends will gather at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café to demonstrate an amazing musical feat. A bunch of family members will get along for eight shows and show us what a good time a family of musicians can have. It must be the music. Some evening see how long you can keep a subject going around the dinner table without any texting. Gayelynn will gather McKinfolk together to honor a family tradition of encouraging one another. They will play great music and demonstrate good family behavior. In the history of jazz, there have been a number of prominent musical families and near the top would be the McKinney family.
DRUMMER GAYELYNN MCKINNEY
My favorite definition of the word family goes like this “A group of people, usually of the same blood (but they do not have to be), who genuinely love, trust, care about, and look out for each other”. They can be easily spotted by their quick-to-smile demeanor when in each other’s company.
With the McKinFolk Project, which pays tribute to her father Harold McKinney’s legacy, Gayelynn is completing an idea that Harold started. This week it will be an extended family that will be continuing to honor the spirit of this remarkable man. Gayelynn will be bringing out a new record soon on the Detroit Music Factory label called McKinFolk: The New Beginning
Harold was an important pianist, mentor, educator, composer, publisher and friend to Detroit jazz. Harold has been heralded aplenty. Probably his greatest legacy will be as a friend and father.
Gayelynn’s mother Gwendolyn was the perfect compliment to Harold. She also was a teacher and mentor. She was a renowned opera singer and vocal teacher who gave Gayelynn her first drumsticks at the age of 2. All in all this was a magical environment to have been exposed to and how wonderful it is that we can still hear the music that was churning in that home.
Gayelynn’s childhood experience was revealed in this interview with Ana Gavrilovska in the Metro Times.
MT: Your father was heavily involved in Tribe, for one, and music all his life. What was it like growing up in that environment?
McKinney: I feel really blessed, because both of my parents were musicians. My mother was a part of Tribe, too. Every morning I woke up to music. It was a mixture of music too, because my father would be wailing away, working on a composition, so I’d hear him playing this beautiful jazz piano, and my mother, who had started out as an opera singer, would be in the kitchen singing songs from Carmen. I would wake up to this every morning, and after breakfast, Dad and I would have what we called philosophical conversations. He did this with me from the time I was at least 9.
Growing up in that environment, Wendell Harrison and Marcus Belgrave and George Davidson, all those guys, were rehearsing at Dad’s house almost every day, so my house was filled with music from sunup to sundown. They would come over and rehearse, and they were very passionate about the music. Especially Dad and Marcus, they would get into some heated conversations about the music, and then after they would get all of that out of their systems, they would play, and it would just be fantastic.
It was a musical playground for me, running from one place to the other, looking at music and playing drums. Ed Gooch used to bring his trombone over to the house so I could play with it while they rehearsed, so I was in the basement playing his trombone. I got the chance to play a lot of different instruments growing up. It was great, a wonderful experience.
‘As soon as I can remember I was tapping and beating on things. My mother bought me a drum set and said, “Here honey, beat on these.”’
Dad had all these drummers coming through the house, but one in particular had a big influence on my playing, along with George. He came into the house one day, and I didn’t recognize him. I knew all the drummers that came through the house and this guy I didn’t know. He was tall and had this wonderful stick bag in his hand. I thought, ‘Oh, he’s a drummer.’ I went over and followed behind him. He sat down, threw the stick bag on the table, opened it up, and laid it out. He had a pair of red drumsticks, like a natural wood reddish color, that fascinated me. I was looking at those sticks, and I looked at him, and I sat really close next to him. I tapped him on his shoulder and I said, “Hi.” He looked at me but didn’t say anything, he just smiled. I said, “Can I have those sticks?” [Laughs.] He said, “You want my sticks?” I said, “Yes. Can I have those?” He said, “What are you gonna do with my sticks?” I said, “I’m going to play with them.” He said, “Hm. Alright. I’ll tell you what, I want you to listen to me first.” I said, “OK.” So he said to me, “I want you to remember the melodies of every song.”
I looked at him, my face scrunched up, and I said, “Why?” He said, “Because if you remember the melodies, people will know where you are when you solo.” I was mulling that over in my head, and there was a moment of silence, and then I tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Hey, can I have those sticks?” [Laughs.] And he said, “Go on, girl — take these sticks and go!”
Fast forward 10 years later, I’m starting to check out the players and who’s doing what. My friend and I are sitting there looking through this jazz book, and we get to this page and I stop and say, “Oh wow, that’s the guy!” My friend said, “What guy?” I said, “That’s the guy that gave me those drumsticks!” My friend said, “Get out of here, that’s not the guy.” I said, “Seriously. When I was 10 years old, he gave me some drumsticks.” It turned out that that guy was Max Roach.
Max Roach gave me a pair of sticks and told me the most valuable information I could have ever received to shape my playing. When Straight Ahead got signed to Atlantic Records, we ended up opening for him at the Fillmore, when it used to be the State Theater. At the sound check, I walked over to him, and by now it must have been 12 or 13 years later, but I walked up to him and said, “I don’t know if you’ll remember me,” and he said, “Oh, I know who you are.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Oh yeah. You’re that little girl that took my drumsticks.”
I met people and didn’t realize who they were until much later. Herbie Hancock [is another person] I met and didn’t realize [who he was] until I was older. It was quite an environment to grow up in.
It seems appropriate that the family at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café will be the site for this special family gathering. Welcome to the family.
THIS WEEK AT THE DIRTY DOG
April 18 – April 21
GAYELYNN MCKINNEY AND MCKINFOLK
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