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In Memory of John McGann (A Message from President Roger H. Brown)

I am sad to announce the death of faculty member John McGann. His fine teaching and musicianship influenced many. I think the words of his students and colleagues capture this eloquently:

John was beyond category and beyond compare. He was like a garden of musical and human gifts. That garden is gone.

– Matt Glaser, Artistic Director, American Roots Program, Berklee College of Music

I’ve had the privilege of studying with John for the past two years at Berklee. We all knew that John was going through health issues for the last couple of weeks, but no one could have imagined this terrible news today. 

John was one of the most amazing and knowledgeable musicians I have ever known. My private lessons with him were some of the deepest musical revelations I’ve had at a school where everyone is thinking about music all the time. He would amaze me by showing me a concept that he had transcribed from Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Eric Dolphy, or Bill Evans. These were concepts that he had transcribed years ago, always from memory! His knowledge of Django was vast, as were his knowledge of traditional Irish music and bluegrass. We even had discussions about Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and Anton Webern (whom he especially liked!).

But more than anything, John was an absolutely beautiful and caring human being: a teacher in every sense of the word. He always had a smile on his face, would stop and talk to you if he saw you on the street, and was always quick with a joke. I know I’m not the only student who realizes that the void left by John’s passing at Berklee can never be filled.

Goodbye John. We’ll miss you.

– Dan Bui, Seventh-Semester Mandolin Principal, Berklee College of Music

So many of us have great memories of John’s life. To contribute your own, please post below.


Roger H. Brown
President, Berklee College of Music

John McGann performs one of the great, elegiac songs in the American canon, Shenandoah:



Life After Berklee: Gunning It – An Ambitious, Female Musician Learning to Make Time for Self


Mike Cavalli: All or Nothing


  1. Harry Skoler

    Whether it was a moment in a chance meeting, or any other occasion to talk, John’s warmth, smile, and heartfelt sincerity made me feel like I was valued and cared about. I was moved by him in ways impossible to describe with words. It didn’t take more than a moment to feel there was a bond at some deep and profound level. I am terribly saddened, and also feel so very fortunate that my life was touched by John….

  2. I had the privilege to work with John McGann on his book, “Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin.” This book was an adaptation of Matt Glaser’s “Bluegrass Fiddle and Beyond,” which John adored, and he breathed new life into it. His performance on the play-along recording was just fantastic. John was such a wonderful musician, with the rare quality of being instantaneously recognizable in sound and style. His playing glowed with his joy and fun and personality, and his extraordinary virtuosity was very much in service to supporting the music’s spirit. John’s personality was completely present in his playing.

    He was an interesting mix of great competency and lack of ego. An interesting thing about his book’s title was that he really wanted to vary it from “Bluegrass Mandolin and Beyond” to “Beyond Bluegrass Mandolin,” even though we had already published Matt’s book with “Bluegrass” first. But John didn’t think it was purely “bluegrass” enough for that title to be accurate, and he was right, inconveniently enough. So, we have a little inconsistency in the Berklee Press catalog that will be an artifact of John standing his ground, staunchly protecting the legacy of Bill Monroe. Dave Hollender’s banjo book in the series followed John’s lead with the title: “Beyond Bluegrass Banjo.”

    John was a delight and an inspiration, and I was so hoping to work with him again. Such a tremendous loss for us all.

  3. …just tears, that all, just tears.

  4. John was my private guitar student back in the late seventies (I believe). He was just starting to learn to play the Pedal Steel guitar. We spent a lot of time working on things and he progressed quickly. It seemed that if it had strings on it, he could play it. As the end of the semester drew near, I asked him what piece wanted to perform for his final. He shocked me when he said, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the pedal steel!!
    Well, that’s just what he did and did a great job on it. Over the years since then I know he gravitated to mandolin but I’m sure he kept up his steel guitar chops. We’ve had many fun times together and I’ll miss his smile and his musical talent. I’m sure you’ve already found a great bluegrass band in Heaven. Play on.

  5. John was a hot number in the String Department!
    Always with a smile and great wit, he contributed immensely to our department and to Berklee.
    His students loved and admired him and we all were delighted to know him.
    John’s lively presence will be sorely missed by us all. He was a truly lovely and fun person.
    My condolences to his family.

    Felice Pomeranz, Associate Professor of Harp,
    String Department

  6. C. Scott Free

    I am so sad to hear of John’s passing. When
    He was a student at Berklee John studied ear training
    With me. His genuine, friendly personality combined
    with his dynamic skills as a musician that stood
    Out in my memory. Soon after he started teaching
    mandolin at Berklee we ran into each other. We went
    To lunch soon after and John reminded me of things I taught
    Him back then. I was happily astounded. His warmth
    And friendship are treasures and my thoughts are with his
    Family and all who knew him. We will miss him.
    Scott Free

  7. Jules Leyhe

    I miss John, anyone who knew him would tell you how great of a man he was. An awesome, well rounded musician, but first and foremost a wonderful human being. He was a great teacher, I’m lucky to have gotten to know him.
    I was blown away to hear of John’s passing, he is missed by all who knew him.

  8. Dirk Mahling

    John was one of the few people who mastered the cittern and even wrote about it. His publications and performances on the cittern, be they jazz, folks, gypsy or other remain timeless!

    Dirk Mahling

  9. I am very saddened to hear about the loss oh John McGann. I first met him a few years ago teaching the Berklee 5 Week Summer program and his musicianship, sincerity, and generosity taught me a lot and will remain with me and all his students.

    My sincere condolences and sympathies to his family.

    German Schauss

  10. Rachel Sumner

    John McGann was a wealth of musical knowledge (a veritable encyclopedia in fact!) and the most caring, funny person I have had the privilege of knowing. I can’t quite wrap my head around the fact that he will never again set foot in my classes and tell us stories of Bill Monroe or The Beatles. I can still hear the “theory geek” voice he would put on when analyzing solos. His passing has left a very big void in the Berklee, Boston, and world music community. My condolences to his daughter and wife.

    John will always be alive as long as there is music in this world.

  11. I didn’t know John very well, we read through some choros once,and exchanged pleasantries when we saw each other, very nice guy.
    I got the idea of his musical vision when I saw his bluegrass ensemble in the Five-week program. It was absolutely terrific, beautiful vocal harmonies,nice groove and really nice varied interesting repetoire. He really took the bluegrass genre and expanded the boundaries.

    my most sincere thoughts and condolences go out to his family. Although we miss him terribly, he will be remembered for eternity for where he was when he died, at the peak of his artistic powers.

  12. Erin Prawoko

    I will miss John’s infectious smile, his humor, and seeing his long fingers dance over the frets of his instruments. Always a delight to be around and simply, a superb human being.

  13. Peter LaBau

    John was the consummate virtuoso. What a complete and beautiful depth of expression he possessed. He was a great listener, had a great voice, the best you could ever hope for as a accompanist or as a leader. And he was also a great musician. He was my brother and I loved him from the minute I met him back in 1980. He and I were great pals, we played all over the place together, and shared a chunk of our lives that I’ll never forget. He was one of my dearest friends. I wonder when my tears will stop? Bye John, I’ll never ever forget you. -P.

  14. I am grateful to have known John. I was in his Gypsy Jazz ensemble, 3 semesters in a row. He loved his work and really cared about his students, these were some of my most valuable hours at Berklee. I recall his encouraging smile when it was my time to play, knowing it wasn’t about judging or competition. I remember the wonderful moments as he traded 4’s with each student, encouraging us to pick up where he left off and doing the same in return. John also encouraged my own writing and helped make it possible for the ensemble play one of my tunes at recital, something I wasn’t sure was possible. Thank you John for your care, hilarious impressions, brilliant musicianship and the example you set as a fine human being. You are greatly missed.

  15. RIP my friend. Although I never met John McGann in person, we shared an email and Facebook friendship for approximately eight years. John arranged four of my favorite songs for me and not only gave me the sheet music but also provided me with a CD for each song with a personalized lesson for that particular song. The world has not only lost a master musician, but a true gentleman as well. Take care Johnny, I’ll miss you buddy!

  16. Lamentable hecho el que acabo de conocer…..tenia las ganas de poder conocer en persona a uno de los mejores mandolinistas que he escuchado en mi vida. Tuve la oportunidad de que el maestro John me indicara como hacer los papeles y la audicion para Berklee, me alcance a escribir un par de emails….mi sentido pésame por esta lamentable perdida…..

  17. John Kingsley

    I remember being an 18 year old student, entering Berklee, and thinking I knew everything. I auditioned for the Bluegrass ensemble, with the youthful, new college student attitude that I was from Georgia, and therefore must be an omnipotent and endless source of bluegrass knowledge.


    Dave Hollender quickly pointed me in John’s direction, and I took a 45 minute train ride, followed by a 20 dollar (one way) taxi ride for an 80 dollar, 50 minute lesson during which I got ripped to shreds (in a more or less nice way). Over the next few years, I became John’s private student, and more important than teaching me guitar, he taught me how to learn guitar. His passion for music was obvious in everything he said, did, and played, and even though I oftentimes left lessons frustrated, dejected, or humbled (although I was usually laughing, and couldn’t wait to get together with my buddies who were also John’s students and trade his anecdotes from the lesson, which were pretty off-the-wall), I always left inspired to play the guitar.

    And man, when you were going to a lesson with John, you had better make it on time, or he was going to lock the door. Yes, you CAN make it from the Uchida building to 1140 Boylston in under 2 minutes…I’ve done it!

    Our relationship transcended the private lesson studio; he would always pick my brain about the Atlanta Braves and who the Red Sox were going to have to face in their interleague series each year. I remember getting into fierce debates about whether Josh Beckett could handle pitching in the American League. Again, John was right. He was supportive of my wacky ice hockey endeavours at the school, and even sold me a steel guitar.

    Oh, and I don’t know if I mentioned this…but man, the guy could flat out play.

    Thanks for everything, John. You helped shape my experience at Berklee, and this year’s Braves/Sox series will be more than a little bittersweet. Although I’m sure you’ve found a message board or two to troll on somewhere up in Heaven ;).

  18. This is heartbreaking news, and almost impossible to believe of someone as vital and fully alive as John McGann.

    John was a wonderful teacher, performer and a close friend. I first got to know him in the mid 80s, when he came over to Europe to play with me and my band. His energy, humor and talent were a delight, and left a deep impression on me and my family, as on everyone who met, heard or played with him.

    We stayed in touch over the years, as John grew into a musical mentor and guide not only for me, but for countless other musicians lucky enough to know and study with him.

    John was a brilliant musician and a funny, warm and totally decent human being. Words cannot say how much we miss him.
    ~ john Intrator, Ferney-Voltaire

  19. John was my last private instructor, my last semester at Berklee. He left a meaningful and lasting coda on my Berklee experience.

  20. I knew John when we were both students at Berklee in the late 70’s. I can remember going over to his apartment, and finding him holed up with his guitar and a pile of blank music paper, transcribing Bird and Coltrane solos when I was just trying to hear do re mi. I didn’t know him in the later phase of his life, but spent time with him years ago and knew him to be a wonderful person as well as an astounding musician. I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.

  21. anna yamada

    I went to High School with John. He and a friend would serenade the lunch and dinner line at the cafeteria on banjo and mandolin and guitar. He made a very depressed person very happy always. To this day I enjoy listening to bluegrass and country and string-picking stuff very much.

    I watched with glee his live-music simulcast from Boston while I was home in NYC.sent a live shout-out. years before livestreaming of musical performances became common or popular or usual . Sent a live shout-out back to him which showed up on the simul-screen they hadrunning in their performance hall. groundbreaker on the net history.

    John never teased me or was cruel to me.

    tothisday I go to the open-mic toenjoy much picking listening at the friday open-mic at West Park PresbyterianChurch on w 86th street starting at 7:300 pm till about12:00am.

    Wishing John’s students would show and play. Free. Drinks cheap.Togo to the renovation of thechurch. “RL”runs it.he’ssomewhat notorious in folk music history. They say he’s always strapped, but I think his wit is dangerous enough. We are salty at West Park.

    remembering John and promoting all things bright and beautiful.

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