In observance of the 81st birth anniversary of Jackie McLean, I’m posting the obituary I wrote for DownBeat after his death in 2006. He was one of my musical idols; in fact, he was the first jazz musician I ever heard in person, when he played a concert at my high school in the spring, I believe, of 1969, when I was 14. I think Larry Willis was on piano and Larry Ridley on bass—can’t remember who was playing drums. His sound to me was the sound of New York City. One of my great thrills during my years at WKCR was the chance to collaborate with him on a Musician Show and a Sunday Jazz Profile — one of my to-dos over the next year or two is to dig out those cassettes and transcribe the proceedings.
Jackie McLean Obituary:
Alto saxophonist and educator John Lenwood “Jackie” McLean, whose searing tone, exuberant phrasing, questing attitude, and nurturing spirit inspired musicians and fans throughout a career spanning more than half a century, died on March 31st at his home in Hartford, Connecticut. He was 74.
More than a thousand people attended the April 7th funeral services at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where McLean had played saxophone in the choir as a teenager.
The best chronicle of McLean’s formative years appears in A.B. Spellman’s Four Jazz Lives (University of Michigan). McLean also endorsed David Rosenthal’s Hard Bop (Oxford) as an insightful source.
Born May 17, 1931, McLean, raised in Harlem, heard jazz from the cradle. His father, John McLean, played guitar with swing bands led by Tiny Bradshaw and Teddy Hill, and his stepfather, Jimmy Briggs, owned a jazz-oriented record store. Briggs bought his jazz-obsessed stepson an alto saxophone in 1946. By then, bebop was efflorescent, and McLean, an early devotee of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, was a fast learner, as were such running buddies as Sonny Rollins, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew. In 1948, pianist Richie Powell introduced McLean to his older brother, Bud. Already au courant with Parker’s Dial and Savoy recordings, McLean began taking weekly lessons from the master.
By 1949, McLean was sitting in with Charlie Parker and doing uptown gigs with Thelonious Monk. In 1951, Miles Davis, a friend for several years, hired him for the first bebop LP session, which included McLean’s “Dig,” a “Sweet Georgia Brown” variant that became an inner city jukebox staple. As the ‘50s progressed, McLean continued to play in the Parker style, recorded the enduring originals “Minor March” and “Dr. Jackle” on a 1955 Prestige date by Miles, served several stints with Charles Mingus (his sound is key to the Mingus Atlantic classics Pithecanthropus Erectus and Blues and Roots), and recorded five albums with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Under contract to Prestige in 1956 and 1957, he led 8 dates, and sidemanned extensively with Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd and Mal Waldron.
Like many from his generation, McLean became addicted to heroin in his teens, and he remained embroiled for much of the next two decades. He often put his horn in pawn to cop, and found it difficult to practice systematically. When not gigging with Mingus and Blakey, he worked on New York’s thriving inter-borough circuit. McLean himself would disparage his own accomplishments during this period, stating on the liner notes to Destination Out, a 1963 Blue Note date, “I was very uninspired as far as playing was concerned…[I] was content to play the same things over and over again.” That being said, he struck a chord with an emerging generation of young musicians.
“The kids I grew up with in Harlem who were into jazz, all we did was listen to those records by Jackie and Arthur Taylor,” says Charles Tolliver, who would play with and compose for McLean from 1964 to 1966. “Those were our favorite people. We ate and slept that stuff.”
“Dig was one of the most popular albums among all jazz musicians,” says trombonist Grachan Moncur. “Jackie’s sound magnified what Bird was doing, like Bird in 3D. Bird played it so quickly, and you had to be more of a seasoned musician to hear what he was doing. Jackie had a very basic, bright sound that pulled you into him. He brought me closer to hearing what Bird was doing, and I could translate it to my horn.”
In 1959, McLean joined the cast of The Connection, signed with Blue Note, and embarked on a succession of recordings that began in bebop (Swing, Swang, Swingin’ and Appointment in Ghana, the latter, in Tolliver’s words, “was the culmination of II-V-I playing, before the advent of Trane and free jazz”) and moved inexorably to modality and open-ended forms (One Step Beyond, Right Now!). Until his contract expired in 1968, he would continue to explore “the big room” with such young searchers as Moncur, Tolliver, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Jack DeJohnette, and his dear friend Billy Higgins.
More than influencing the next generation’s vocabulary, McLean showed them pragmatic ways to find their path, to project a stance, an attitude, a personality through their instrument.
“He was always searching to break the Charlie Parker mold,” says Tolliver. “He would pop one of those patented Charlie Parker riffs in between things, just to remind you, ‘Hey, we’re experimenting, but not that much.’ He was able to mix things up, not turn his back on the so-called new thing, and totally control it with the REAL deal.”
“I always trusted him,” said Gary Bartz, who met McLean around 1958 on a Brooklyn session. “If he said, ‘I’m really looking into this new stuff,’ I wanted to look into it, too. What drew me to him is that he had a tenor attitude. Miles said to me once, ‘Why did you all you alto players play so sharp?’ and he was talking about Jackie. That’s how I hear and that’s how he heard.”
In 1970, McLean moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and began the second act of his career. He and his wife Dollie McLean founded the Artists Collective, a thriving Hartford interdisciplinary cultural arts center that has educated thousands of Hartford youngsters. That year, McLean also became a teaching associate at Hartt School of Music; ten years later, he founded the Department of African-American Music and subsequently established jazz studies as a degree program.
Educational obligations trumped performance, and McLean recorded sporadically, waxing several dates for Steeplechase in the early ‘70s, and one-offs with Hank Jones, McCoy Tyner and Mal Waldron. He worked periodically with his son Rene McLean, who had studied saxophone by his father’s side since the ‘50s, and played third sets for him at Slugs during the ‘60s. In 1988, McLean gave up administrative duties at Hartt for a teaching position, went in the woodshed, and formed a group with his son and South African pianist Hotep Galeta, who brought African, Islamic, and Asian elements into the repertoire, as documented on the Triloka albums Rites of Passage and Dynasty. In the ‘90s, he played at exalted levels with crackling ensembles comprising his son and stellar Hartt alumni like trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Alan Jay Palmer, and drummer Eric McPherson, as documented on Rhythm of the Earth [Verve] and Fire and Love [Blue Note]. As had been his custom since the ‘60s, McLean performed the compositions of his sideman and infused them with his aura.
“Jackie always said, ‘Whatever you’re playing, it’s got to be in rhythm,’” recalls Jimmy Greene, who studied with McLean both at the Artists Collective and Hartt. “Grooves were prevalent on every tune. Through the ‘90s, he developed systems based on fourths or whole tones that he would juxtapose over the chord changes. But what I’ll remember most about his playing is that however fiery, intense, or harmonically adventurous, it’s got to be lyrical. So many of his solos are so singable.”
As Rene McLean notes, his father is one of the few jazz musicians who left behind a tangible institutional structure. But Jackie McLean also leaves an indelible aesthetic, summed up by Steve Davis, who relates: “Once in the dressing room before the set, Jackie said, ‘Above all else, the one thing I never, EVER want to do is play something corny. I’m so terrified of playing something corny, that on the day I have a concert, I don’t EAT corn.’”