Andy McGhee, 89, big band saxophonist who taught at Berklee
Andy McGhee reached a crossroads in the mid-1960s, when he was tempted to return to the road once taken.
An accomplished saxophonist, he was a mainstay with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman before settling into teaching in Boston so he could spend more time with his family. “I had been out there for 10 years and had two daughters,” he told the Globe in 2002.
Then temptation arrived in the form of a telegram from Count Basie’s band. Would he consider going back on the road? “I turned it down,” he recalled. “That turned out to be a great decision.”
Mr. McGhee, who taught full time at Berklee College of Music for more than 30 years, and part time until moving to Marietta, Ga., five years ago, died in his sleep Oct. 12. He was 89 and formerly lived in Roxbury and Hyde Park.
His choice to remain in Boston was a good decision for generations of jazz students, too. At Berklee, he wrote popular saxophone method books and taught generations of young musicians. Running a classroom and directing ensembles, he said, was a good way to stay current with his own playing.
“Teaching keeps me up to date and around good players,” he said in an interview for a Berklee publication in 2006. “If you’re going to be a teacher and talk about something all day, you gotta be able to do it.”
Hired in the 1960s when the school was still Schillinger House, before the 1970 name change to Berklee College of Music, Mr. McGhee at times taught for 35 hours weekly. His tenure stretched so long that former students joined the faculty. “Matter of fact, all of my bosses now once were my students,” he told the Globe with a laugh in 2006.
Teaching at Berklee, meanwhile, didn’t mean giving up performing. He gigged around Boston and played engagements with bands, including the one he turned down to spend more time at home. “The first time I ever saw my father play was when my mother and sister and I watched him on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ with Count Basie,” said a daughter, Druann Riggs of Marietta, Ga.
Though Mr. McGhee was small in stature, when he performed, “everything about his presence was like he was a giant-sized man,” she said. “The soulfulness of it — you could tell my father went through a lot. His music had a lot of feeling and a lot of wisdom — and pain, sometimes, and happiness. He played that horn almost like he was talking, versus blowing.”
The youngest of seven children, Andrew McGhee was born and grew up in Wilmington, N.C., where his father, Thomas McGhee, was a laborer, and his mother, the former Lonnie Stevens, was a homemaker.
Encouraged by his high school band director to pursue a career in music, Mr. McGhee headed north in 1945 to study at New England Conservatory. Though he said in interviews that one of his brothers helped pay for his education and that he earned a small scholarship as well, he lived in a Roxbury boarding house during his years at the conservatory and worked as a janitor, waiter, and busboy.
After graduating in 1949, he was playing a gig in Boston when the wife and stepdaughter of another man in the band arrived to listen. The young woman was Mary Constance Lucas, who was known as Connie. They married in 1951, when he was serving in the Army. Drafted a year after graduating from the conservatory, he initially played in an Army band in New Jersey and then served as a decorated soldier in the Korean War.
Upon returning to Boston, he performed in a variety of venues with different musicians before hitting the road with Hampton’s band. “The best part about playing with Lionel was that he taught me that once you came to the bandstand, you played your best whether there were 50,000 or five people out there,” Mr. McGhee said in the interview for the Berklee publication.
Hampton offered Mr. McGhee a job in 1957, the day after he sat in with Hampton’s band one evening at Boston’s legendary Storyville nightclub. In 1963, he joined Herman’s band. Mr. McGhee told the Globe in 2002 that after setting aside touring, “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.”
His wife, who died in 1986, worked for many years in the insurance underwriting department of Liberty Mutual in Boston and strongly supported his music career, even when he said no to Count Basie to teach instead — a decision she left to him.
He kept the telegram with the job offer from Basie in his Berklee office. “That was a hard decision,” he told the Globe in 2006. “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.’ ”
Mr. McGhee “was a devoted father and a devoted husband to my mom,” his daughter Druann said. With two young daughters at home in the 1960s, “he felt like he was going to miss out on key elements of our childhood if he didn’t get off the road.” Through his encouragement, she became a top tennis player at Brookline High School, and her sister, Caren McGhee of Buckeye, Ariz., was a state champion golfer as a teenager, and for a time the only black member of the Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts.
A golfer himself, Mr. McGhee helped train Caren in her formative years, and played at courses throughout his years in Boston.
In addition to his two daughters, Mr. McGhee leaves a grandson and a great-granddaughter.
A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the chapel at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
During Mr. McGhee’s career, his performances appeared on several albums, and he considered his recording of “Sophisticated Lady” a tribute to his wife. While teaching, he graduated from Berklee with a master’s in composition. In 2006, the college awarded him an honorary doctorate in a ceremony that also featured Aretha Franklin and Melissa Etheridge.
“My father had all those accolades, but he wanted to teach,” Druann said. “He wanted to leave something behind. He was a purist with jazz. He wanted people to learn and appreciate.”