The late Bernie McGann, a hugely influential figure in the history of Australian jazz, studied and played in New York, collaborated with Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Stitt, Dave Liebman and others, and toured extensively. But he also enjoyed a life of solace in a small picturesque coastal town south of Sydney, working as a postman and practicing his saxophone in the meditative surroundings of the bush.
McGann’s history can be taken as metaphor writ large: Artistic brilliance against gorgeous isolation seems an overarching theme of Australia’s century-deep jazz heritage, which burgeoned through a dance- and swing-band craze, developed an enduring early-jazz tradition, and has branched out into all varieties of modernism. “We’re on an island in the South Pacific,” the trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist James Morrison pointed out to me late in the evening of Tuesday, April 30. Morrison is a jazz educator who runs a namesake academy, a facilitator for the music and jazz’s premier public ambassador in Australia, with a profile like Wynton Marsalis’ in the States or Igor Butman’s in Russia.