Thursday, 24 July 2014

JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann


Bernie McGann is one of the greatest of all jazz musicians, either here or anywhereHe represents the essence of the music; uncompromising and thoroughly schooled in the tradition, while creating his own response to itHe’s like a great painter who’s developed this style, and then refines it and refines it.  But everything that he does is unmistakable because of the style.
Pianist/Composer & McGann collaborator

The death of alto saxophonist Bernie McGann (who preferred to be known as 'Bern') on 17 September 2013 robbed Australian jazz of one of its true pioneers, a brilliant self-effacing giant whose career spanned more than five decades and saw him create and perfect a unique, instantly identifiable sound that was, by turns, dark, dry, angular, chaotic and, when the occasion called for it, achingly romantic.  For many jazz fans he was the preeminent figure in Australian improvised music, a musician who never stopped stretching his own boundaries and those of everyone he played with despite being almost totally ignored by the mainstream media and achieving what can only be described as an 'extremely modest' degree of commercial if not critical success.

McGann was born Bernard Francis McGann in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah on 22 June 1937.  His father, who was a semi-professional drummer employed by day as a sheetmetal worker, moved the family west to Granville when he was two years old.  It was in the working-class suburb of Granville, in a house that faced the perpetually busy Parramatta Road, that he grew up, immersed in the music of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Mary Lou Williams and other prominent American jazz and swing artists of the time.  (He also attended Marist Brothers High School in Parramatta, where he was a classmate of my father's, before leaving in his early teens to begin working as an apprentice fitter and turner.)  He took piano lessons as a child, then switched to drums before finally taking up the saxophone at the age of eighteen, influenced –– as were aspiring musicians all over the world at the time –– by the smooth, ultra-modern sound of Paul Desmond, then at the peak of his popularity as the alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

The Breeze and I (2011)
BERNIE McGANN [alto sax]; WARWICK ALDER [trumpet];
Recorded live, 28 June 2011 

McGann was playing well enough by the late 1950s to take his place alongside other emerging Australian jazz talents like drummer John Pochée and trumpeter Errol Buddle at a late night Sydney venue called 'El Rocco' really just a cellar with a neon sign proclaiming it a 'jazz club' –– located in the Sydney 'red light' district of King's Cross.  El Rocco, which had opened in 1955 as a café serving instant coffee to the city's bohemian elite, soon became the city's premier jazz venue, home to virtually every great musician –– Judy Bailey, Don Burrows, Bobby Gebert, George Golla, New Zealand pianist Mike Nock, the list is seriously impressive – who would go on to make his or her mark throughout the 1960s, the 1970s and beyond.  

McGann's professional relationship with many of these musicians would be strong, but none more so than that the partnership he developed with John Pochée, whose flawlessly in-the-groove drumming would become crucial to the sound of both the Bernie McGann Trio and the Bernie McGann Quartet.  It was with Pochée, as a member of a band called Heads, that he earned his first residency at a Melbourne club called the Fat Black Pussycat in 1964.  Their stay in Victoria was brief, however, and they were back in New South Wales the following year, gigging regularly in Sydney venues like Club Eleven, the Taxi Club and the Mocambo in what was then the highly unfashionable and still underprivileged suburb of Newtown.  In later years, McGann would feature prominently in Pochée's own mini orchestra Ten Part Invention, frequently performing and recording with the goup as well as in the smaller group, The Last Straw, they co-founded in 1974.

Spirit Song (1993)
Recorded live, 1993

McGann, who made his first jazz recordings in 1967 for a compilation LP titled Jazz Australia, supplemented his income during the late 1960s and early 1970s by working as a session musician and performing as a member of the rock/soul group Southern Comfort.  Around this time he also moved to the small bushland community of Bundeena south of the city, working by day as its postman and often taking his saxophone deep into the bush of the nearby Royal National Park to conduct his daily practice sessions.  At the Sydney benefit concert held for him in September 2013, immediately following the heart surgery which unbeknownst to everyone would shortly cost him his life, John Pochée remembered being sent off to find him one day, only to discover 'a solitary chiselled figure atop a large rock platform blowing out across the vast expanses of bush.'  This habit of honing his sound alone in the bush, far from where anyone but the occasional possum or wallaby could hear him, was crucial to his musical development and helped prepare him for what became his most productive decade, with his trio and quartet producing several internationally acclaimed recordings and backing visiting top-notch US musicians such as Freddie Hubbard, Lester Bowie, Dave Liebman, Sonny Stitt and Dewey Redman.  

In addition to touring extensively both in Australia and overseas throughout the 1980s –– including successful visits to the UK, the USA, Czechoslovakia, Poland, India and Malaysia –– McGann also found time to play himself in the 1988 Kevin Lucas docu-drama Beyond El Rocco.  By 1990 he was arguably the most famous 'unknown' jazz musician in Australia, with another successful tour of the USSR helping to cement his international reputation as a player of astonishing depth, power and sometimes staggering individuality.  

Rufus Records, 1998 (reissue)

The ensuing decade saw McGann consolidate his position as Australia's leading saxophonist with the 1991 release of Ugly Beauty, his first new trio album for many years and one which featured several of his own strikingly angular compositions in addition to a selection of sympathetic and thoughtfully chosen standards.  The album gained him an ARIA award and the 1992 Mo Award for 'Jazz Group of the Year' –– awards he would win again in 1994, 1995 and 1997 for his albums McGann, McGann and Playground before becoming the first non-classical performer to win the prestigious Don Banks Award in 1998, an annual $60,000 prize given to 'a senior artist of high distinction who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to music in Australia.'  The same year saw the publication of a biography, written by poet, novelist and social historian Geoff Page, titled Bernie McGann: A Life in Jazz by the Armidale-based Kardoorair Press (a book which, sadly, no longer appears to be in print). 

Bernie McGann: Australian National Treasure
Short film about McGann 

Despite his originality and his often breathtaking technique McGann was at heart an old school musician who believed in playing wherever and whenever he could, making as little fuss about himself as he seemed to make about his music.  He was quintessentially Australian in his attitudes and, by all accounts, in his personal likes and dislikes, which included a fondness for the game of pool and the lifelong habit of rolling his own cigarettes.  He was, according to his friends, laconic, modest and 'capably self-reliant,' a man who once quipped, after attending yet another award ceremony, 'Win an ARIA Award and you can't get a gig.'  He was, above all, a survivor, someone who obviously possessed the talent and ability required to transform him into an internationally renowned superstar had he chosen to relocate to New York or Paris instead of continuing to ply his trade in a tiny jazz backwater like Australia.  

McGann never lost the power to astound and dazzle audiences or, more significantly, his fellow musicians.  As John Pochée said of him when asked what it had been like to play with him for over forty years:  'Bernie can still raise the hairs on the back of my neck.'  That's the kind of praise that would have mattered to a man for whom the pursuit of the human and the personal was infinitely more important than any accolade he received from the critics or those responsible for handing out music prizes and grant money.   The last word on McGann's legacy should perhaps come from pianist Paul Grabowsky, with whom he recorded the stunning ballad album Always in October 2005.  It was an unusual project for both musicians, but one well worth the time and effort required to bring it to fruition, given the beautiful but still unmistakably McGannesque music they created together.

It was Dale Barlow who in about 1982 first made me think about Bernie.  How he was the true original, the swingin' postie, the Australian Bird, more kookaburra than nightingale, how he sang his own song.  You can hear echoes from across the pond:  Parker, of course, Ornette, especially Sonny Rollins, but I've heard him sound cooler as well, almost like Lee Konitz.  What really matters is that here is Australian jazz's Fred Williams, its Patrick White, a poet who evokes a dry, brittle and shimmering Australian landscape off the back of Tin Pan Alley and Vera Lynn...Something for always.

Salaam (2011)

BERNIE McGANN [alto sax]; WARWICK ALDER [trumpet];
Recorded live, 28 June 2011

Click HERE to listen to more great music by BERNIE McGANN.  To read his full obituary (from which much of the biographical information required for this post was obtained), published in The Australian on 23 September 2013, please click HERE.  A short clip from the 1988 film Beyond El Rocco can be viewed by clicking HERE.  

Many fine recordings by BERNIE McGANN and his various bands can be purchased online by visiting the website of Sydney-based jazz label Rufus Records and its Bandcamp page

Special thanks to those who take the time to upload music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere.  

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