Andy McGhee, Cyrus Chestnut
January 1, 1970This is coming at you a couple of days late because of a weekend trip to the Cape and some technical problem with the host server yesterday. The week's column profiled Andy McGhee, an extraordinary longtime educator at the Berklee College of Music and a top-notch tenor saxophonist to boot. With a long, full life such as his, lots of interesting stuff had to be left out of the story to make it fit the space. And some stuff I thought would make it in got cut as well, including a quote from Bill Pierce, who now runs Berklee's woodwind department, on what a great example McGhee was to Pierce and other students both as a musician and a man.
The Calendar Pick was pianist Cyrus Chestnut, whom I also wrote up a couple of months ago for the Globe's special Summer Preview section.
Next week's newsletter will be shorter than usual, as I'm taking a week off from doing the column. But the week after will be augmented by something new: a film review. The Globe has asked me to review "Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr.," which opens locally at Brookline's Coolidge Theatre August 4.
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The teacher was once a major player
Saxophonist McGhee still works on his chops
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | July 21, 2006
WOBURN — When the white-haired gentleman in suit and tie blew his tenor saxophone at the Tanner Tavern a couple of weeks ago, leading a quartet through a set featuring "Summertime" and other standards, most of the diners barely looked up. But Andy McGhee is too important a jazz figure to ignore.
McGhee's accomplishments include nearly a decade of touring with Lionel Hampton's and Woody Herman's big bands and more than four decades of teaching at the Berklee College of Music.
This spring, the restaurant began experimenting with building a part-time jazz schedule around McGhee, who plays there every couple of weeks. Is he unfazed by the occasional lack of attention?
"No, that doesn't bother me," says McGhee, 78, a few days later during a chat at Berklee. "It changes my program, because I try to keep it softer, and light. I play standard tunes: 'There'll Never Be Another You,' tunes like that. I compromise.
"I think jazz musicians have made a grave mistake," he says. "The hell with the people, they're going to play what they want. And they play one tune for 20 minutes. Charlie Parker didn't do that, and he was the greatest player ever."
Parker and bebop were hitting full stride when McGhee began studying at New England Conservatory in 1945. A childhood friend of jazz great Jimmy Heath, McGhee grew up in Wilmington, N.C., and moved to Boston at 17 after their high school band director urged him to consider a career in music and McGhee's brother offered to help pay for it.
Boston was becoming a magnet to student musicians in those days, with NEC and the newly opened Schillinger House (since renamed Berklee) creating courses to appeal to veterans wanting to study music on the GI Bill. And because Boston was segregated, McGhee was one of several stars-in-the-making to find themselves rooming in two Rutland Square boarding houses.
"I could go to Gigi Gryce and say, 'What about these modes and stuff?'" McGhee recalls. "And he'd sit down and tell you. Or I'd go to Jaki Byard and say, 'Do you know this tune "Cherokee"?' He'd say, 'Yeah,' and write it out for me."
After McGhee graduated NEC and served in the Army, he returned to Boston, where his first steady gig was with Fat Man Robinson, a popular local singer and baritone sax player in the style of early R&B star Louis Jordan. "This guy had it all down," McGhee says of Robinson. "All of Louis's stuff. And I did some whooping and hollering things, like 'Flying Home.'"
The peak years of McGhee's performing career began in 1957. He had quit Robinson's band by then, and one night after a practice session with another band on Commonwealth Avenue, he decided to catch Lionel Hampton at Storyville on the way home. A fan of Robinson's sitting at the bar persuaded Hampton to let McGhee sit in, which led to a job offer the next day. McGhee stayed with Hampton's band for six years, then got a job offer from Woody Herman within hours of giving notice that he was quitting Hampton.
McGhee stuck with Herman until April 1965, when he decided to get off the road and find work that would provide his two daughters a better education. But he was tempted to hit the road again when a job offer arrived soon afterward from Count Basie. He says he's still got the telegram offering him the gig.
"That was a hard decision," McGhee admits. "But my wife was a super lady, and she made it easy for me. Because I asked her, 'What should I do?' And she said, 'I'm not going to answer that. That's up to you. I know you'll be sitting there watching television, and you'll see Count Basie there and you'd say, "I could be there if I wanted. "'And the way she put it, I went right to the telephone, called [Basie's] New York office, and told them, 'Thank you, but no thank you.'"
McGhee joined the Berklee faculty the next year. Since then, many of his students have gone on to build impressive resumes themselves — most visibly Ralph Moore of "The Tonight Show" band.
"Matter of fact," McGhee says, laughing, "all of my bosses now once were my students."
© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Cyrus Chestnut Trio
Marblehead Summer Jazz, Unitarian-Universalist Church, 28 Mugford St., Marblehead. 781-631-1528. 8 p.m. $25 advance, $27 door
Much of the best jazz in Greater Boston this weekend happens beyond the city’s borders. The most obvious case in point: pianist Cyrus Chestnut (above), who brings bassist Michael Hawkins and drummer Neal Smith to Marblehead on Saturday. The trio has been touring in support of Chestnut’s enjoyable new CD, “Genuine Chestnut,” with stops at the Regattabar in May and at New York’s Jazz Standard earlier this month. Reviewing the latter, New York Times critic Nate Chinen wrote of Chestnut having “played music tinged by gospel coloration and rooted in earthy swing” – an apt description of the 43-year-old’s career-long approach to making music. But the new disc also saw Chestnut exploring a pair of pop tunes to which he has sentimental attachments. Don’t be shocked to hear his versions of “If” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in Marblehead.
Sat 7-22 Katahdin’s Edge The trio of pianist Willie Myette, bassist John Funkhouser, and drummer Mike Connors has a new CD, “The Ridge,” following up on its 2004 debut, “Step Away.” Once again, there’s the high-altitude adventurousness suggested by the band’s name and album titles. But the music stays rooted and engaging enough to avoid provoking vertigo. The Center for Arts in Natick, 14 Summer St., Natick. 508-647-0097. 8 p.m. $15.
Sun 7-23 Mark Kleinhaut Trio Guitarist Mark Kleinhaut and trio mates Jim Lyden (bass) and Les Harris Jr. (drums) explore tunes from their deliciously understated and swinging new CD of Kleinhaut originals, “Holding the Center,” in a free matinee concert. Maudslay State Park Arts Center, Curzon Mill Rd., Newburyport. 978-499-0050. 2 p.m. Free.