22-6-1937 - 17-9-2013
A note or two was all it took. Turn on the radio, hear that saxophone sound and it was obvious you 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 elite - an instrumental voice as distinctive as Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis.
McGann's uniqueness was stamped all over 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 they grazed the aural canal on entry; 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 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 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 McGann nominated in an interview in 2008 as being pivotal to his development, 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.
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, like his father.
Bernard Francis McGann was born in Kogarah, NSW, on June 22, 1937, the first child of Frank and Edna McGann, who lived in Sydney's 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 a young McGann picked out melodies), hosting rehearsals and record-listening sessions.
McGann attended the Oliver Plunkett primary school in Harris Park, and by the time he went to Marist Brothers, Parramatta (which he hated), he too was a drummer. He left school at 15 for an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner. Crucially, that income enabled him, at 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. Meanwhile, he found work in a veterinary biochemical factory nearer to home. He was 22 before he moved away from his mother, father and siblings Carol and Brian to pursue the exciting musical world that was unfolding.
The Mocambo coffee lounge in down-at-heel Newtown was the crucible where McGann applied the avalanche of technical, theoretical, artistic and aesthetic information he was being offered to his work, and it was being absorbed in conjunction with such other young players as pianist Dave Levy and drummer John Pochee. 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. He was joined by his girlfriend, Sandy Hattersley, and the pair got married. They had two children, Curtis and Keli, but the marriage folded after 15 years.
Auckland turned out to offer little musical work, and when the McGanns returned to Australia they were soon lured to Melbourne for one of several stints. McGann played a season with an American jazz ballet company, and then fell into a residency with the Heads, which included MacRae and Pochee.
This band made the first McGann recordings, as part of a compilation titled 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.
About the same time, McGann began another pivotal relationship, with 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.
By 1974 he had returned to action, firstly with Pochee's band, the Last Straw, then Kindred Spirits (fronted by singer Wendy Saddington) and then the adventurous
New Zealand rock band Blerta, led by the late drummer and actor Bruno Lawrence.
Finally, in 1982, having never relied on commercial gigs for an income, McGann formed his own trio with Pochee and bassist Lloyd Swanton, a band that would survive for 25 years (often with Jonathan Zwartz in the bass chair).
Besides his trio, McGann 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 American 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 performances by McGann that confirm him as one of the three most instantly identifiable alto saxophonists of post-bebop jazz, together with Ornette Coleman and Arthur Blythe.
McGann's band was the first Australian outfit 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, trumpeter Warwick Alder made the trio into a quartet. McGann then shook things up more, 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 pianist Paul Grabowsky.
Bernie McGann is survived by his partner of the past three decades, Addie (Adeline) John, his children and four grandchildren.