Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Vale Bernie McGann, king of jazz

Music McGann

Bernie McGann. Photo: Peter Karp

Australian jazz is mourning the loss of its most distinctive voice, Bernie McGann, who died on Tuesday from complications following heart surgery. He was 76.

McGann's sound and style on the alto saxophone were so singular that his playing could easily be identified inside of a couple of notes if randomly encountered on the radio. This, in itself, places him in a rare elite in jazz history. It was a dark, dry, warm sound, bursting with humanity.

Had McGann, pictured, been inclined to base himself in New York half a century ago he would surely have been more universally acknowledged as one of the most significant saxophonists in jazz history. As it was he proved a boy from Granville with the imagination, integrity and strength of character to pursue jazz his own way could carve a niche and leave a legacy that will withstand fierce scrutiny of subsequent generations.

McGann shunned the life of the jobbing musician, famously preferring to work as a postman in Bundeena and practise his art in the national park.


With influences ranging from the alto of Paul Desmond (of Dave Brubeck quartet fame) to the meaty tenor of Sonny Rollins, McGann began playing in Sydney in the late 1950s, the drummer John Pochee being among his earliest and longest-lasting collaborators. He spasmodically composed pieces notable for their in-built swing, while finding fresh implications in the standard repertoire. He was the first Australian to be invited to play at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and in 1998 became the first jazz artist to receive the prestigious Don Banks Music Award.
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