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Farewell to Gisborne’s jazz man

Tairāwhiti's music scene has become a little less jazzy with the passing of John Mackill.

If reggae has Skankamelia and punk has Sitdown in Front, then without doubt jazz had John, who was the driving force behind the local scene as both a musician and composer.

John passed away at home last November at age 65 after a long battle with cancer.

Born in San Diego, he went on to study maths at The University of California, where John met his future wife Karin while she was studying zoology. The pair were married for 40 years.

They met at university through the Bahá'í Club, a group for followers of the religion.

“Being a Baha'i was a really important part of his life,” said Karin.

So much so the pair moved to Tonga in the early 1980s to help share the religion and ended up living on the island for five years.

With a two-year-old and another child on the way, John lined up a job at the University of South Pacific in Fiji before their plans were scuttled by political upheaval.

In 1987, the elected government of Fiji was overthrown in a coup and the young family had to change their plans.

“Otherwise we still would've been in the islands,” Karin said.

Instead, they decided to move to New Zealand and ended up in Gisborne.

John taught maths at Lytton High School before teaching at Campion College — all the while pursuing and creating music.

Friend and bandmate Ross Revington got to know John first in the Gisborne Civic Orchestra and eventually they played together in John Mackill's Jazz Collective.

“He was mad keen on jazz. That was his favourite thing,” said Ross.

“Although he knew about a lot of different music, jazz was really his passion.”

John was a prolific composer and arranger of music.

“To the best of my knowledge, he didn't do much except compose music and play music. He certainly didn't work on the house or in the garden,” said Ross.

His music was often different.

“He used our band as an experiment. We played his music to test his pieces out.”

Occasionally his music would miss the mark, but at other times John would produce “absolutely amazing pieces of music”.

John liked using strange time signatures that would trip up his fellow bandmates from time to time.

“He made it incredibly difficult for (drummer) Bruce Cameron sometimes,” said Ross.

Although he was jazz mad, bandmate and flute player Laura Gilding said he had diverse tastes.

“He did everything from ballads to blues to jazz. He loved bebop. And the quicker, the faster, the better,” said Laura.

“My fingers couldn't move fast enough sometimes.”

With their leader gone, it is unlikely the band will continue without their namesake.

John gave much of his time to conducting for the Gisborne Concert Band, at both senior and junior levels, and also played and composed music for the Gisborne Civic Orchestra.

Chris Reynolds, fellow conductor, musician and friend said John and Karin were stalwarts of the concert band.

“He was always willing to help. He had his own ways of doing things and it produced wonderful results. I had a great time working with John.”

Learning with a musician of John's talent was an exceptional opportunity for younger players, said Chris.

Karin said their faith helped them both with his passing. She said John had been battling cancer for many years and their faith helped put that into perspective.

“We believe that this is one stage. The soul is eternal so death is just releasing from the body.”

As well as a musician John was a keen bike rider.

“He would ride his bike to school every day. He was even cycling to his chemo appointments when his cancer was being treated,” said Ross.

“For a guy who was such a fantastic musician he was always down to earth.”

John is survived by his wife Karin, sons David and Kenji and their partners, and grandchild Lucas.

by Jack Marshall

IN HIS ELEMENT: John Mackill conducting the Gisborne Concert Band at a Live on the Lawn concert in January 2015. Above, with his wife Karin and son David in Tonga in 1985. Pictures supplied
ISLAND LIFE: John and Karin Mackill with their son David in Tonga 1985 after performing for the King as part of a small teacher ensemble.

  1. Nasili, Auckland says:

    My sincere condolences to Karin and family. John was my mathematics teacher and Karin my art teacher at Tonga High School. I also played the trumpet for our jazz band that John formed. RIP John.

  2. Tangoi, Auckland says:

    Our prayers are with you Karin and family. May John rest in his loving arms. I first met John at Campion College in 2012. He was my daughter’s maths teacher. RIP and ofa atu ❤️😭🙏❤️

  3. Ivanhoe Moala says:

    My condolences to Karin and family. John was a great mathematics teacher and Karin is an excellent artist and teacher also. I was one of the members of that jazz band John started at Tonga high school . . . Rest well in God’s peace Mr Mackill. We all miss you

  4. Moliane Kailea Vakalahi, Auckland says:

    My deepest condolences to you Karin and your family during this time of sadness. Sweet memories of John as he was my mathematics teacher in Tonga High School in the 1980s, and he was the best. When people asked me, what’s your favourite subject? I said “maths” 🧡. May you rest in peace in God’s mighty hands Mr Mackill, until we meet again. Thank you for everything, ‘ofa lahi atu 🙏🙏🙏💔💔💔🥲🥲🥲

  5. Nailasikau Halatuituia, Palmerston North says:

    Belated and sincere condolences to Karin and family. I was lucky enough to know both John and Karin, even taught by them back in Tonga. RIP J Mackill