Bernie McGann Obituary

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Bernie McGann in 2012. Photo: Peter Karp Photography


A note or two was all it took. Turn on the radio, hear that saxophone sound and it was obvious your were hearing Bernie McGann inside one bar. All jazz musicians aspire to reaching that point. Few achieve it. That singularity placed McGann in jazz’s ultimate elite: an instrumental voice as distinctive as a Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis.

McGann’s uniqueness was stamped all over both his sound and his ideas. The sound could be as Australian as dry gum leaves crackling under each step beneath a blasting blue sky, but it was never mono-dimensional. Some notes were so sand-blasted that they grazed the aural canal on entry, while others arrived as cries so fleeting and delicate they seemed a memory of a cry rather than being in the here-and-now. His lines, meanwhile, could be terse and laconic, but his was fundamentally the music of compassion. Jubilation and anguish were as one in McGann’s espousal of what it was to be human.

His influences were identifiable, and yet his approach was so unconventional as to convey the mad idea that he had once heard the merest fragment of bebop on the radio and made up all the rules for himself. In fact he had listened deeply, initially drawn by the light, woody sound and relaxed lyricism of Paul Desmond, the alto saxophonist in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Other influences were almost diametrically opposed to Desmond. Of 12 saxophonists he nominated as being pivotal to his development in a 2008 interview he did with me for my book Jazz – The Australian Accent, five were tenor players, and the weight and brawn of the larger horn were abundantly evident in the power McGann came to develop in the alto’s lower register.

Then there was his equally idiosyncratic take on melody, where, as with his sound, gruffness rubbed shoulders with tenderness, and staccato bursts of rhythm alternated with aching longer notes. Often he seemed to work like a Cubist: exploring an idea from several perspectives simultaneously.

McGann could easily have missed reaching such a pinnacle of artistry. His life could have unfolded as a fitter and turner who played the drums on the side, just as his father’s had done.

Bernard Francis McGann was born in Kogarah on June 22, 1937, the first child of Frank and Edna, who initially lived at Banksia, before moving to the heat-haze of Granville. Frank was a fitter and turner who worked in Glebe, and a part-time – although notable – drummer in dance bands. Theirs was a home with a piano (on which the young McGann could soon pick out melodies), hosting rehearsals and record-listening sessions.

McGann attended Harris Park’s Oliver Plunkett Primary School, and by the time he went to Marist Brothers, Parramatta (which he hated), he too, was a drummer. He escaped Marist Brothers at 15 to land in the drudgery of being an apprentice fitter and turner. Crucially, however, that income allowed him, when aged 18, to buy an alto saxophone.

His commitment was immediate and complete. It needed to be, given that most jazz saxophonists are likely to have studied clarinet from an early age. He listened (including to the nightly broadcasts of Voice of America on short-wave radio), practised and took lessons, and meanwhile changed to working in a veterinary biochemical factory closer to home in Granville. He was 22 before he eventually moved away from his mother, father and younger siblings Carol and Brian, to pursue the exciting musical world that was unfolding in company with new, like-minded friends.

The Mocambo coffee lounge in down-at-heel Newtown was the crucible where McGann applied the avalanche of technical, theoretical, artistic and aesthetic information being absorbed in conjunction with such other young players as pianist Dave Levy and drummer John Pochée. The latter is adamant that the makings of McGann’s “big, raw tone” were in evidence as early as 1959.

In 1963 McGann moved to New Zealand to work with pianist Dave MacRae. Once there he sent for his girlfriend Sandy Hattersley, and married her. They had two children, Curtis and Keli, the marriage folding after 15 years.

Auckland turned out to offer little musical work, and when they returned to Australia they were soon lured to Melbourne for one of several stints. McGann played a season with a US jazz ballet company, and then fell into a residency with The Heads, which included Pochée and MacRae. This band would subsequently make the first McGann recordings, as part of a compilation called Jazz Australia in 1967. They contributed two McGann compositions, including the perennial Spirit Song. McGann was never a prolific composer, but his pieces had an inbuilt-swing that provided a buoyant updraught for his playing.

Around the same time he began another pivotal relationship with the pianist Bobby Gebert, before opting out of the scene altogether to work as a postman in Bundeena, and spend his free time practising in the Royal National Park. Without walls to reflect sound, acoustic instruments seem to shrink in scale. Playing in this unflattering environment McGann’s sound grew ever more robust. No one complained about the noise, so endless hours were spent there, and just perhaps something of the bush coloured McGann’s artistry.

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McGann with Paul Grabowsky. Photo: Peter Karp Photography.

By 1974 he had returned to action with the adventurous New Zealand rock band Blerta, led by the late drummer/actor Bruno Lawrence, with Pochée’s hard-driving The Last Straw, with Kindred Spirits (fronted by singer Wendy Saddington), and a McGann-led band with drummer Phil Treloar. Finally, in 1982, having never relied on commercial gigs for income, McGann formed his own trio with Pochée and bassist Lloyd Swanton, a band that would survive for 25 years (often with Jonathan Zwartz in the bass chair).

Besides his trio he was an important part of Ten Part Invention, although he was the first to admit that sight-reading was never his strong suit. He collaborated with (and routinely astounded) visiting US musicians including Sonny Stitt, Dewey Redman, Red Rodney and Barry Harris. He appeared in the film Beyond El Rocco (1990), and in the 1990s finally began to record regularly, thanks to Tim Dunn’s Rufus Records. Whether studio or live, these albums are studded with vintage McGann performances that confirm him as one of the three most instantly identifiable alto saxophonists of post-bebop jazz, together with Ornette Coleman an Arthur Blythe.

McGann’s band was the first Australian outfit to be invited to play at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and in 1998 he was the first jazz artist to receive the prestigious Don Banks Music Award.

In 2005 the trio became a quartet with the addition of trumpeter Warwick Alder, and then McGann shook up the operation further, eventually settling on the regular line-up of the final years with bassist Brendan Clarke and drummer Andrew Dickeson. He also thrived in a parallel project co-led by the Melbourne pianist Paul Grabowsky.

McGann died on September 17 from complications following heart surgery. He is survived by his partner of the last three decades, Addie (Adeline) John, his children and four grandchildren.