David McGee, a street musician at heart

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2011 - 10:11 PM

The cellist, courted by the esteemed Juilliard School in New York City, instead chose to play on his own terms.

David McGee

Photo: Aretta Rie Johnson,

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David McGee might well have been the Twin Cities' most visible classical cellist.

But the concert hall was not his venue. McGee, who shared his love of music with passersby as a street musician, plied his trade for years at area sports stadiums, malls, farmers' markets, and the Minnesota State Fair. McGee, 53, died in Minneapolis near the end of June. His brother, Jonathan, said the exact date has not been determined. He was found on the sofa of his apartment, dead of apparent congestive heart failure.

"He played in the skyways, he played at the Metrodome, Target Center and Target Field," said Jonathan McGee. "I remember him playing when the Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. ... [The cello] is not the easiest instrument logistically to carry around, but he could load it on his bike, on the bus and carry it walking. He would carry his chair, his cello and set up wherever he could." Then he would open his case for donations.

McGee's sister, Carol McGee Johnson, said her brother played at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on East Lyndale Avenue as recently as June 25.

"Then, we learned of his death the following Thursday," she said.

McGee grew up in St. Paul and Rochester, and began taking cello lessons at age 9. At one time, he studied with former Minnesota Orchestra cellist Anthony Elliott, who, like McGee, is black. Johnson said she hopes to see more black musicians taking up the cello and wants to start a memorial fund to "help young black cellists here in Minnesota." She said her brother got a second cello a few months ago and gave it to her granddaughter, "and was giving her lessons, so that is the next generation of black cellists."

Jonathan McGee said his brother was accepted for admission to the Juilliard School in New York City but decided at that point that music was not going to be the focus of his life, and opted for Carleton College in Northfield instead. After Carleton, he attended the University of Minnesota Law School for a year.

"Then, he decided that he was just going to be a cellist," Johnson said. "That's what he loved. That's what he wanted to be." He did stints with some community orchestras, taught the cello, worked for the Minnesota Orchestra in ticket sales, and took to the streets as a performing musician.

"He was his own boss, and he liked being his own boss, so I think the transition to a street musician on his own sort of fit his personality," Johnson said. "He really did like sharing his music with as many people as [he could]."

McGee didn't stick to a classical repertoire. He would play popular tunes and TV theme songs as well, Jonathan McGee said.

Did he ever entertain aspirations for some kind of concert or symphony career? "I think he had aspirations to play with a major symphony," Jonathan McGee said. "But he never managed to bring that to fruition."

In addition to his brother, Jonathan, and sister, Carol, McGee is survived by nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and cousins. He was preceded in death by his parents, Earl and Anna McGee, and a brother, former Hennepin County public defender William E. McGee.

A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at SGI-USA Buddhist Community Center, 1381 Eustis St., St. Paul. Tom Reid, a friend of McGee's through the community center, said the center seats about 100 people.

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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