The music made that afternoon to an audience of one was some of the most vital, living, emotional and highly skilled producing of art that this listener had ever heard. Anywhere.
Sonny Rehe of Uptown Jazz Cafe has penned some words in tribute to his friend Bernie McGann, whose recent loss has been felt deeply in the jazz community. It is a privilege to pass them on:
It is difficult to describe someone so utterly dedicated to their art form, whose sincerity is so deep it just never stops flowing. You tend to run out of adjectives.
Effortlessly inspirational, Bernie McGann’s kudos can probably best be “described” by one Friday afternoon rehearsal at Uptown not so long ago, in preparation for a performance later that night. First to arrive, Bernie sat patiently puffing on a Dr Pat while the lazy afternoon sun thought about setting.
Slowly the rest of the band enters, beaming upon seeing Bernie’s face, and the instrumentation takes shape. Ready to begin, Bernie says a couple of things about the first tune, takes a pause and proceeds to count it in.
Having played through the melody, the band starts to relax, preparing to finish this tune off and move on to the next one, when out of nowhere like some angel from a far away time and place, Bernie sets off on one of the most heavenly, serious improvisations you’ve ever heard. I mean he starts swinging his absolute ass off, blowing so heavy it’s as if all our lives depend on it — at this very moment, now.
The band (all well known collaborators) in a mixture of shock and adulation, scuffles to wake up to the situation they’ve found themselves in, and within seconds everyone goes from their warm-up mode to their absolute A-game.
In this room with the soft sunlight coming in the windows, one man is throwing everything he has at the music he’s playing, and it’s mastery level.
What was essentially a “sound check” just transformed into the most serious musical circumstance, somehow including me as sole witness, furtive glances of acknowledgement coming from the band.
Bernie continues to play each tune in the session with the same full-spectrum committed dedication, taking full length, thoughtful, evolving solos. Each successive tune is approached as if this is the crystallisation of the masterpiece you’d been so close to making your whole life, as if THIS IS IT.
And this is at the rehearsal!
You have never seen such an attentive, inspired, excited and fully concentrated rhythm section. The music made that afternoon to an audience of one was some of the most vital, living, emotional and highly skilled producing of art that this listener had ever heard. Anywhere.
Still partly in shock at the end of the hit, the band shuffles about a little, not quite recognising the afternoon, while a relaxed Bernie sits down like a contented leader does after a successful event, peels a banana and eats a sandwich that his beloved wife Addie made for him that morning in Sydney.
The last night I ever hung with Bernie, after one of his most sublime performances, he was uncustomarily happy about the concert. When I asked him what he enjoyed about it, he replied, “I dunno, I just managed to find some space in there. That’s all I’m really after; just wanna find some s p a c e . . . .”
I’ll always remember that at our parting moment, dropping him at his hotel that night, Bernie was happy.