Bernie McGann celebrations and benefits

Article by Jasmine Crittenden

If there’s one player in the history of Australian jazz who has inspired aspiring musicians to search for their own sound, it’s Bernie McGann. In response to the news of his hospitalisation last week following a major heart attack, the jazz community will host benefits at Venue 505 in Sydney this Sunday, August 25 and at Bennetts Lane in Melbourne on Sunday 1 September.

The two music marathons are will serve as a testament to the depth and breadth of the legendary saxophonist’s influence.

In Sydney on 25 August, the concert starts at 6:00 pm. Some of McGann’s longest standing colleagues, as well as his youngest admirers, will be making an appearance. Mike Nock, Lloyd Swanton, Sandy Evans, Andrew Dickeson, Matt McMahon and John Pochée, who’ll be MC-ing when he’s not behind the drum kit, are all on the programme.

Melbourne’s gig is at Bennetts Lane and kicks off at 6:30 on 1 September. The line-up currently includes Paul Grabowsky (solo piano), Italian saxophonist Mirko Guerrini, and Wilbur Wilde. They are joining an already impressive line-up of leading Melbourne jazz artists (plus Perth’s Jamie Oehlers) with the confirmed artists including Julien Wilson, Allan Browne, Ian Chaplin, David Rex, Ken Schroder, Jex Saarelaht Trio, Bopstretch, Phil Noy, Philip Rex, Niko Schauble, and Sam Bates, among others.

‘People can expect a lot of love from everyone there,’ says bassist Jonathan Zwartz. ‘There’ll be a lot of great musicians paying tribute. It will be an amazing night celebrating a humble but great man who happens to be a jazz musician we all love.’

McGann, who turned 76 in June, has long been lauded as one of the nation’s most important voices. ‘It usually takes only one note,’ John Shand wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, on the occasion of McGann’s 75th birthday tour. ‘One dry, crackling note on that alto saxophone confirms it’s Bernie McGann, the most distinctive jazz musician Australia has produced.’

Bernie McGann playing his alto saxophone
Bernie McGann at Wangaratta, 2012 | photo by Marc Bongers

‘I think there’s something essentially Australian landscape about his sound and playing,’ explains Zwartz. ‘He can sound like a lone bird in flight making his cry, and that is totally juxtaposed against a background of highly urbanised music, which is what jazz is, mostly . . . He has influenced my thinking about being oneself as a musician, making one’s vulnerability one’s signature.’

McGann first became known to Australian audiences in the 1950s, when the famous El Rocco Jazz Cellar was the centre of the Sydney jazz scene. In 1974, he became one of the founding members of Pochée’s group The Last Straw, the lineup of which included Ken James (saxophones), Dave Levy (piano) and Jack Thorncraft (bass).

By then, he was living in Bundeena, where the Royal National Park meets Port Hacking. ‘He’d practise in the bush, developing the huge sound that would go on to be heard clearly, without amplification,’ wrote John Clare in an October 2012 article for The Monthly, ‘over the loudest, most polyrhythmic drumming of his long-term collaborator, John Pochee.’

Influenced by both Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker, McGann’s sound awed listeners, not only in its technical facility and originality, but also in its unnameable yet undeniable, visceral energy. ‘At the height of McGann’s passion, and when no more momentum could be squeezed from orthodox time, he would sometimes slip the tracks and enter a realm where time was susceptible to free manipulation . . .’ Clare continued. ‘Yells and even screams would rise from the audience. These peaks of excitement have scarcely been equalled in Australian jazz. Something akin to speaking in tongues was in the air.’

Some of America’s biggest names in jazz – Freddie Hubbard, Lester Bowie and David Liebman among them – have invited McGann to provide support, and in 1981, he performed and recorded with Sonny Stitt. Since then, he’s completed numerous national and international tours, earned several ARIAs and, in 1998, became the first non-classical musician/composer to receive a Don Banks Award.

‘He is an amazing person, pure spirited,’ Zwartz says. ‘He has great integrity and humility as a person and that spills into his artistic life.’

In Sydney: Tickets for Sunday night’s concert, priced at $25/$20, are available on the door. There’ll be cross-generation jazz of all kinds, as well as giveaways, including a gold pass to the 2013 Wangaratta Jazz Festival.

In Melbourne: hosted by the Melbourne Jazz Cooperative, tickets are $20 / $15. Prizes donated for the Silent Raffle include a Melbourne International Jazz Festival Gold Pass (value $1,000), four copies of the Australian Jazz Real Book donated by editor Dr Tim Nikolsky (value $100 each), a JazzHead CD pack, and the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues is donating a Gold Pass (value $350).

Both Rufus Records (Bernie’s main label) and JazzHead will be selling stock at the concerts, with a good percentage of profits going to Bernie. You may also be able to purchase copies of the 1997 book Bernie McGann A life in Jazz by poet Geoff Page, as well as some photographs by Bruce Hart (who now resides in Canada).


‘Eronel’ – Bernie McGann Quartet | 24 June 2011
Bernie McGann – sax, Warwick Alder – tpt, Brendan Clarke – bass, Andrew Dickeson – drums

Get to the gigs

Sydney, Sunday 25 August 2013

Venue 505
Read more >

Melbourne, Sunday 1 September 2013

Bennetts Lane Jazz Club
Read more >