Roy McGrath is a Chicago based tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader. Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and educated in Boston, New Orleans and Chicago, Roy brings to bear these diverse influences in his playing and composing. In addition to leading and recording with his own jazz ensembles, he is a member of several others and an in-demand player in the city’s jazz, funk, Latin jazz and salsa scenes. He has led international tours to Mexico, Singapore, Korea and China. As a composer and arranger, Roy is firmly in the jazz tradition, but his Latin American heritage is an ever-present mind set, leading to wholly original works that are a true expression of who he is. His plans for 2017 include recording and releasing a new album of original compositions, Remembranzas, and leading two special big band tribute projects honoring legendary Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández and Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra.
Roy sang in school choirs before picking up the saxophone at age 16. After attending the Berklee College of Music Summer Workshop, he earned a full scholarship to attend Berklee’s five-week Summer Performance Program. Back in Puerto Rico, he honed his improvisational skills performing with jazz pianist and Beach Boys alumni Carli Muñoz. Upon high school graduation, Roy was awarded a scholarship to Loyola University in New Orleans, where he studied under Tony Dagradi (saxophonist for Astral Project) and composer/arranger John Mahoney. He graduated in 2009 with BM in Jazz Performance. After graduation, Roy extended his time in New Orleans, performing in clubs, concert halls and the streets with a variety of musicians. He made three appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and an appearance at the New Orleans French Quarter Fest.
The next stop on his musical journey was Northwestern University in Chicago, where he graduated with a master’s degree in Music, studying under Victor Goines, saxophonist for Jazz at Lincoln Center and Director of Jazz Studies at Northwestern University. Graduating in 2014, McGrath decided to put down roots in Chicago because of both its historic role in the development of jazz and the presence of a large and vibrant jazz & Latin music community in which he could continue to pursue his vision. He returned to Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in 2016 to perform with Victor Goines and Branford Marsalis in Goines’ orchestral composition Crescent City.
Roy McGrath released his debut CD as a leader, Martha, in 2014 with a quartet formed of fellow Northwestern grads Gustavo Cortiñas, Kitt Lyles and Joaquin Garcia, all bandleaders in their own right, and returned the favor by joining their ensembles: Snapshot (Cortiñas), Real Talk Collective (Lyles) and Rhythm Convergence (Garcia). The Roy McGrath Quartet was featured in the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s NextGEN concert series in 2015. Later that year, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) awarded McGrath a grant to take the quartet on a month long tour of Mexico. Also in 2015, The Roy McGrath Latin Jazz Quintet performed at the Chicago Latin Jazz Festival.
Roy also launched the “Julia al Son de Jazz” project in September 2015, commissioned by Chicago’s Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, where he works as director of the youth Afro-Caribbean Jazz Ensemble and collaborates with folkloric ensembles. The project used the writings of revered Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos as a springboard for new compositions that included spoken word recitations of her poetry. Its debut was followed by successive performances throughout Chicago including three dates for the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks summer concert series in 2016. McGrath has since used ideas developed during that period in his latest endeavor, Remembranzas, a new batch of original compositions that incorporate folkloric bomba rhythms and other Puerto Rican elements in a jazz framework.
2016 also saw McGrath joining alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and traditional music ensemble Bomba con Buya for Folclórico: An Exploration of Jazz and Afro-Puerto Rican Music.
His current quintet consists of bassist Kitt Lyles, keyboardist Bill Cessna, drummer Jonathan Wenzel and percussionist Victor Junito Gonzales. Roy also records and performs with the Four Star Brass Band, Benjamin Scholz Quartet, Victor Bastidas Ensemble, Fatbook, Afinca’o, the Willy Torres Salsa Orchestra and many others.
Roy has taught masterclasses on improvisation at Dulwich College International in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Beijing, at the Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico and at Las Musas de Papa Sibarita in Mexico City.