Women’s History Month is underway. What better way to start off this special month than by highlighting one of Detroit’s trailblazing women in music, the renowned jazz drummer Gayelynn McKinney, who’s made her presence known in what was once a male-dominated area of the music industry.
As the daughter of legendary Detroit jazz pianist and Tribe member, Harold McKinney, and the late singer Gwen Shepherd McKinney, Gayelynn jokes she didn’t have much of a choice in her career path. Now, as one of Detroit’s most accomplished drummers, McKinney sits down with 90.9 WRCJ host Cecelia Sharpe for a conversation about her roots and the importance of showcasing women in music.
They talk about the barriers McKinney has had to break through as a female drummer, her trailblazing work with Straight Ahead, an all-female jazz band that formed after McKinney finished college, and the recent launch of her “Women Who Drum” festival in 2022 as a way to share the love and highlight female drummers in the music industry.
Cecelia Sharpe, Host, WRCJ 90.9 FM: And we are celebrating Women’s History Month, celebrating women in music. And my guest today is one of Detroit’s finest drummers, Ms. Gayelynn McKinney, welcome to the show.
Gayelynn McKinney, Musical Artist, Professional Drummer: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me, Ce.
Cecelia Sharpe: Absolutely. Now, Gayelynn, you come from a musical family. Your father is the legendary Harold McKinney. Your mother was a well-noted singer. Your siblings are musicians, trumpeters, singers, you name it. So you had no choice.
Gayelynn McKinney: I had no choice.
Cecelia Sharpe: But to become a musician. You started playing drums at the age of two.
Gayelynn McKinney: I got my first official lesson and nine from Ike Dainy, God rest his soul, he’s not here either anymore. But he also started teaching me officially, like rudiments and things like that at nine.
Cecelia Sharpe: So, what made you–because you were playing the clarinet and saxophone. You were great. You already beat out the first chair. You challenged the first chair saxophonist, within your first month of playing and won. What made you stick with the drums?
Gayelynn McKinney: Nobody knew I played drums until one particular day the drums were out, and I said, “Oh, ok.” I went over there and I started playing on the snare and doing some stuff. Everybody in class was looking at me like, Oh, my gosh, he’s playing the drums. And clearly, I obviously knew what I was doing, so that was very surprising to everyone.
And so, after that day, I was standing at the bus stop on my way home from school, and this little girl was looking at me like. I was like, “What’s wrong with you?” And she said, “You are playing the drums” And I said. “Mhm. Yeah.” And she said, “Well your a girl.” I said, “Yeah I know that.” And she said, “But you are playing the drums.” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well you’re not supposed to be playing the drums. The drums are for boys.”
And she really, that really hurt my feelings. I was like, Well, I’m a girl. I like to play the drums. When my father came home from New York one day, he had been doing some music there and he didn’t know how I was feeling. He just knew– he never knew I was thinking about quitting. And so, he just came in all excited. “Guess what!?” I said, “What?”, “I saw another little girl play in the drums!” I said, “Really?”
He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. She was playing with Clark Terry and she was about two years, about eight years old.” So, I’m ten and she’s eight. And that drummer was Terri Lynn Carrington. That was all I needed. I just needed to know that there was some other girl playing an instrument because it was– I never saw any other girl play an instrument when I was coming up playing the drums.
Cecelia Sharpe: I didn’t think that you would face flack, for lack of a better word, but catching the heat from girls for playing drums. So, did you find that you were more welcomed by the guys?
Gayelynn McKinney: It was just the one little girl really that said something about it. The boys just would, you know, they would be, I think they were in shock. They were too in shock to even say anything. So as I got in my older years, though, that’s when I really started to see from guys that they weren’t quite that happy that I was playing the drums, especially doing jam sessions.
Cecelia Sharpe: Right after college, you joined a group called ‘Straight Ahead’. An all-female Jazz Ensemble. How did that band come about?
Gayelynn McKinney: That band came about thanks to a woman named Miche Braden who was trying to find some musicians to perform at this club called Bert’s Place. And it used to be on Jefferson right across from Hart Plaza. And she couldn’t find anybody. Everybody was busy. So, she called me and she said, “Hey, Gayelynn, I’m trying to put a band together for Bert’s Place for a Monday night gig.” and you know Monday is not a good night.
But I guess word started circulating that there was an all-female jazz group playing. And like I said, we weren’t tiptoeing through the tulips, we was hittin. So, by the next couple of weeks, a couple of weeks later, we had like 20 people come in the club. By the end of the second month, there was a line going outside of Bert’s Place.
Cecelia Sharpe: On a Monday.
Gayelynn McKinney: On a Monday from people wanting to see this all-female group.
Cecelia Sharpe: Last year, in 2022, you launched a festival, “Women Who Drum”, tell us about that festival and the mission and purpose of “Women Who Drum”.
Gayelynn McKinney: So, I started this thing because I play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Fridays and Saturdays with the great Ralph Armstrong and Gerard Gibbs. And I’ve been doing this now for–since February of 21. And do you know that almost every weekend, one night out of that weekend, sometimes two nights out of that weekend, somebody says, “Wow, you’re the first woman drummer I’ve ever seen.”
That’s when the idea came to me, I said, “Well, I’m gonna start this festival because people here need to see and know that there’s more than just me out here doing this.” For one thing, I love performing. I love playing for people especially who appreciate it. So, I feel obligated to give them a show. If you come to see me, I feel obligated to give you a show. You came to see me perform, so I’m gonna give you something back so that you leave happy because you’re going to know I put my all into it, you know?
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