John McGann, 52, Berklee professor, mandolinist

the boston globe
John McGann was a professor of strings at Berklee. He played with the groups Wayfaring Strangers and Rust Farm.

Fingers racing at the hound-chased tempo bluegrass commands, John McGann performed masterfully on the mandolin as he taught and inspired students at Berklee College of Music about the breadth and depth of traditional acoustic music.

Jazz drew from him equal proficiency and the kind of mandolin solos that could leave listeners wondering what sound would have emerged if the giants of jazz had learned to play on backcountry porches in Appalachia.

A multi-instrumentalist whose playing was in demand around the world, Mr. McGann wore his talent lightly, whether performing alone or as part of an ensemble.


“When I’m trying to play music, I don’t want it to be the wonder of me,’’ he told the Globe in 1999. “Virtuosity is worthless in itself. Being able to play an instrument with facility is monkeys with typewriters. It’s mechanics. So it’s amusing to me when I see people in music who have a big head about themselves. Because it’s not about them; it’s about the music.’’

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Mr. McGann, a professor of strings at Berklee who arranged his life so he could spend most of his time home with his wife and daughter, died of complications from a kidney illness April 5 in Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain. He was 52 and lived in Brookline.

On the Bluegrass Today website, the acclaimed young mandolinist Sierra Hull, who had studied with Mr. McGann at Berklee, called him “one of the most gifted mandolin players and musicians I have ever met. He knew how to teach in such a way not to intimidate, though he knew more than I will probably ever start to grasp.’’

“John was beyond category and beyond compare,’’ said Matt Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee, in a statement on Berklee’s website. “He was like a garden of musical and human gifts.’’

Playing solo or with groups such as the Wayfaring Strangers and Rust Farm, his gifts were on display every time he picked up an instrument. And he brought a philosophy of constraint to his performances.


“I do believe in the physics of ‘the less wasted movement, the more efficient and easier the playing,’ ’’ he said last year in an interview posted online at the Mandolin Café website.

Mr. McGann was answering a question about how fingers can best ascend the strings of a mandolin, but he could have been discussing how he approached his career.

In the world of performance, often known for big egos, late nights, and the kind of endless touring that makes relationships wither, Mr. McGann was as much a husband and father as he was a musician. Combining local gigs, teaching, and transcribing tunes for musicians famous and unknown, he managed a rare feat.

“Because I have my own business, I get to be a dad,’’ he told the Globe in 1999 in an interview at his home, then in Roslindale. “I get to hang around here, work at my own schedule. I don’t do any major touring, so I get to be with my family a lot, and I always have time for my own music.’’

Granted, music was more than just a way to make living. It was more, even, than the lifeline he grabbed as a teenager to save himself from an adolescence he didn’t much like.


“To him, it was the sound of the divine in all ways,’’ said his wife, Sharon.

Still, music wasn’t enough, unless his wife and their daughter, Hannah, now 14, were part of the harmonious mix.

“I don’t want to be phoning in my fatherhood from the road,’’ he told the Globe in 2002. “I’ll go out for a week or two now and again, but most days I can get up with my daughter, hang out, drive her to preschool. We always have dinner here, keep the home fires burning.’’

The older of two brothers, Mr. McGann grew up in Lake Hiawatha, N.J., where he excelled in music.

“Music saved his life,’’ his wife said. “He found the Beatles when he was young. He could listen to the Beatles and play every single note in every single song by ear. That gave him a start and gave him a center for his passion and a direction for his life.’’

During high school, he left New Jersey to attend and graduate from the Solebury School in New Hope, Pa., where he made a life-changing friendship.

“On my first day at Solebury, as my mom drove me down the long driveway of the school, there stood a short guy with long black hair and a beard, leaning against a car and playing the banjo,’’ Mr. McGann wrote on his website.

The banjo player was John Zeidler, who became one of his best friends. Zeidler, who died in 2002, introduced Mr. McGann to bluegrass music, gave him his first mandolin, and became the luthier who built instruments Mr. McGann used in performance.

In 1977, Mr. McGann moved to Boston to attend Berklee, from which he would graduate, and where he joined the faculty several years ago.

“At Berklee, he was unusual in that he wasn’t a bebop head and he wasn’t a jazz head, he was developing an interest in bluegrass music,’’ his wife said. “The great thing about John was that he didn’t care at all about convention. He had his own compass and he stayed true to it.’’

As a performer and a teacher, “he lived his life with passion for music, for humor, and to make the world a better place and be a good person,’’ she said. “He lived up to those standards and he was just a joy to be around.’’

A service has been held for Mr. McGann, who in addition to his wife and daughter, leaves his brother, Daniel of Cinnaminson, N.J., and his mother, Joan, of New Jersey.

Often praised for expanding the horizons of the mandolin into new genres, Mr. McGann tended to downplay his impact.

“I’m flattered by the phrase ‘breaking new ground,’ but the only real new ground would be the instrument that I play on,’’ he said in the Mandolin Café interview. “The vocabulary that I use in jazz is actually quite mainstream, although I hope that I have my own personality and take on the situation.’’

He added that he always wanted his performances in bluegrass and jazz to stand independently.

“When I play bluegrass, I don’t want to sound like a ‘jazz player slumming,’ and the same goes for playing jazz. You know, showing up at the barbecue in a wet suit!’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at