And so it goes: Life is a fatal disease for which there is no cure, an outcome that none of us can escape. Sadly, death has taken the Australian altoist Bernie McGann who away passed here in Sydney at the age of 76 on 17 September, 2013. One of the truly unique masters of our favorite art, a revered elder in the music, has left the stage. Heart problems resulting from his heart surgery I am told – medicine is not an exact science or a guaranteed outcome.

I came from The States to Sydney in 1995 and wondered what the jazz community would be like hereabouts, if there even would be one here in The Antipodes. It turned out to be marvelous, both then and now; Bernie was one of the most brilliant lights to hear (to mix metaphors) – an overworked description, but a true original. For example, I remember an incident after having been here a couple of years walking in the CBD and faintly hearing music… it sounded like jazz. A block closer, it sounded like an alto w. rhythm and another block closer, it sounded like Bernie McGann. I hustled the remaining blocks to the amphitheater in Martin Place to find that my ID was correct. Bernie sounded like Bernie and nobody else.

Bernie McGann could be labeled “post-bop”, but that does not really tell one anything. Influenced by the likes of Paul Desmond, Cannonball Adderley, and Ornette Coleman, he developed his own special sound on his sole chosen instrument. It was warm and dry, sort of like the Australian outback, and it fit in with many possibilities, including some studio work. I heard his trio with John Pochée and Lloyd Swanton, his quartet with Warwick Alder added to the trio on trumpet, and as part of the sax section of Ten Part Invention, the superb all-star (truly) larger group led by Pochée. In all contexts, he was appropriate, swinging, and thought-provoking, plus totally and uniquely identifiable. And fun!

The cliché about him might start, “If only he’d gone to NYC he ‘coulda been a contenda’”! No matter, he was here most of his life and Australia was the better for him staying at home… someone had to! He was the best and he played with the best, both locals and visiting firemen – it doesn’t get much better than that! And I got to meet him and hear him on many occasions, so selfishly I’m glad he stayed. He did play the Chicago festival a few years ago with his trio, and traveled with Ten Part Invention in Asia. A member also of The Last Straw in addition to Ten Part and his own groups, much of his recorded output has been released by Rufus Records. There are no dogs there and I recommend them all. A biography [Bernie McGann: A Life in Jazz by Geoff Page (Kardooraire Press)] was published in 1998, and he was one of the foci of the film Beyond El Rocco (Ronin Films, 1988), a movie dealing with a major venue of Sydney’s jazz past.

A quiet man, he put his heart and soul into his music and gave great pleasure with his playing. I shall miss him greatly as a musician and as a person. And you all should get some of those CDs right now! There’s still one I lack and I’ll pick it up soon. Vale, Bernie.


Pub: THE IAJRC JOURNAL, Vol 47, No 1 – pp. 34/35.

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1 Response to BERNIE

  1. Sherman says:

    Sad news, I was unaware of Bernie’s passing.
    In other news: The Jazz band on the “Other Side”, just got a little better.
    I’ve always loved Bernie’s take on Monk’s composition “Ask Me Now” from the “McGann McGann” disc.

    Rest In Peace, Bernie


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