Visit Andy McGhee Part 1

Photo of Andy McGhee in the late 1970s

Andy McGhee, late 1970s

Andy McGhee was back in Boston in fall 1966, off the road after three years of bus rides with Woody Herman’s orchestra. Count Basie heard he was available and offered him a job, but McGhee declined. McGhee, with a family to support, wanted to stay home.

Fortunately, a door opened for McGhee, and the man holding it was Lawrence Berk. It was the door at 1140 Boylston Street, the brand-new home of the Berklee School (not yet college) of Music. Just inside that door was McGhee’s old friend from the late 1940s, Charlie Mariano.

Exit Charlie Mariano, Enter Andy McGhee

Mariano was teaching at Berklee, but he was tired of it—so tired he planned to quit immediately, rather than wait until the end of the fall term. Where, in mid-semester, could Berk find a suitably qualified instructor to replace him? Charlie himself recommended Andy McGhee, an opinion seconded by Andy’s bandmate with Woody Herman, Phil Wilson. Wilson told me, “They were in different orbits musically by then, but Charlie loved Andy. Those were big shoes to fill, though. The students respected Charlie. He spoke from the heart, and he spoke the truth.” Big shoes or no, Berk hired Andy.

McGhee’s immediate challenge was to get settled. He told the Boston Globe’s Bob Blumenthal in 2002: “I wasn’t worried about my playing when I got home. I was worried about getting my kids through college, and about all the dues my wife had paid while I was on the road. The transition was easy because Charlie had all of the top players in his ensemble. My problem was proving myself to the best students.”

McGhee won over Mariano’s students, and many more afterwards. He taught at Berklee full-time for 31 years, and then part-time for 16 more. He finally retired in 2013, seven years after Berklee granted him an Honorary Doctorate of Music. Among his more illustrious saxophone students were Bill Pierce (later chairman of Berklee’s Woodwind Department), Antonio Hart, Javon Jackson, Ralph Moore, Greg Osby, Donald Harrison, Walter Beasley, Richie Cole, Tim Price (read his 2011 article about McGhee here), Jaleel Shaw, Tony Dagradi, and Sam Newsome.

The Phil Wilson Connection

I’m sure McGhee will be remembered mainly for his work at Berklee and with the name bands, but he was active locally apart from his teaching. He was a solid citizen of the jazz community without being particularly flashy about it. He directed ensembles at the South End Music Center (now the Community Music Center of Boston) in the late 1960s, and in later decades was active in the Boston Jazz Society. For a time he co-led a big band with Wilson to play at their fundraisers.

McGhee was especially busy on the scene from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. He often collaborated with his Berklee colleagues Ray Santisi and Alan Dawson, and especially with Wilson. The four recorded together on Wilson’s 1977 LP, Getting It All Together, along with bassist Whit Browne. Wilson recalled that: “Andy was fun to be with, highly intelligent, and he knew what was going on at all times. You just don’t find a lot of guys like that.”

In 1978-79, McGhee and Wilson had the house band at Lulu White’s, and later gigged at Sandy Berman’s Jazz Revival in Beverly and the El Morocco in Worcester. McGhee was also on the studio band Wilson organized for the 1975 television show Big Money, sponsored by the Massachusetts Lottery. That episode is worthy of its own blog post. It’s on my list.

Another of McGhee’s notable engagements included pianist Sammy Price and drummer Carl Goodwin in 1983-84 at Copley’s Bar, in the Copley Plaza Hotel. With Dave McKenna holding court at the Plaza Bar on the other side of the building, the staid old hotel became a hotbed of jazz in the Back Bay.

Could It Be

Andy McGhee made one recording as a leader, his self-produced CD, Could It Be (Mags Records 1334) in 1992. Could It Be was not distributed widely; it isn’t easy to find and I do not know if copies are still available anywhere. McGhee assembled a fine band for this recording: pianist Santisi, guitarist Joe Cohn, bassist Marshall Wood, and drummer John Ramsay, with Greg Hopkins contributing arrangements.

McGhee had a way with ballads; here is a standout performance of “Sophisticated Lady” from that CD. Ben Webster would no doubt approve of Andy’s extended solo.

Here’s “Better Late Than Never,” an up-tempo tune from McGhee’s own pen. Andy’s solo is sandwiched between those of Cohn and Santisi.

Wonderful music, isn’t it? It is as Stu Vandermark wrote in the CD’s liner notes: “It is apparent that Andy McGhee knows too much about the essence of jazz to produce works that hammer the ear with “cleverness” or confused “complexity.” Here we see demonstrated the primary purpose of composition and arrangement for jazz performance: To create the best context for sparking improvisation at the highest level.” He attained that level, but for McGhee, there was always more.

In his Berklee Oral History Project interview, McGhee told Fred Bouchard: “I think that, like Trane, you never really stop learning. After you get to that level, you want to go to another level. Those are the guys that really turn out to be good players. Once you start looking in the mirror at yourself and say, “I can play,” you’re done.” Andy McGhee had a long career, for which we can be grateful, but he was never done.

Visit Andy McGhee Part 1