Jackie Mclean

Saxophonist with passion and fire


John Lenwood McLean, alto saxophonist, bandleader and teacher: born New York 17 May 1931; married (two sons, one daughter); died New York 31 March 2006.

Coming up in the Fifties in the next generation after Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean played with passion and fire. His speed and urgency gripped the attention of his listeners and made him stand out from the other musicians of his day. Recalling his early days for the film-maker Ken Burns, McLean said,

Sonny Rollins and several of the other saxophone players and musicians that lived on Sugar Hill, we all knew that we had to practise and work hard because the music was not easy. You had to have great speed, good energy and dexterity and a good knowledge of chord progressions and theory in order to play this music.

McLean's father, a guitarist in the band of Tiny Bradshaw, died when Jackie was seven. His godfather, Norman Cobbs, who played in the band of Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church, took him there every Sunday and also to the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where he heard Charlie Barnet's band and became fascinated with Barnet's various saxophones.

When the boy was 15, his mother bought him an alto saxophone and he took lessons from two veteran Harlem saxophonists, Walter "Foots" Thomas and Cecil Scott. He also began a life-long friendship and working relationship with Sonny Rollins, who lived in his neighbourhood. Jackie McLean's stepfather owned a record shop and this was where McLean was drawn to the playing of the tenor saxophonists Ben Webster and Lester Young.

Then he heard the first of Charlie Parker's records. "There was no thought after that about how I wanted to play," he said. As a youngster McLean was good enough to be asked occasionally to deputise for Parker. He recalled,

That was one of the biggest honours of my life. And when the gig was over he paid me, and that was an honour, too, because I wasn't playing for money . . . he called everybody one at a time, and then he called me and said "Put your hand out", and he started counting dollar bills into my hand. When he got to 18 I still had my hand out and he said "Well damn, Jackie, take your hand back sometime." So I took 15 dollars and gave him three dollars back. That was a lot of money for me then.

It was another veteran, the piano giant Bud Powell, who recommended the young man to Miles Davis. In 1951 McLean joined the Davis band and made his first recordings with it. By now, at 19, he was addicted to heroin.

Miles more or less became my teacher and forced me to stop approaching this music as a little boy and approach it as a man, with putting some deep study into learning how to play progressions and chords and learn how to play the piano and things like that.

McLean stayed with Davis for a year or so and went on to play for other leaders including Paul Bley, George Wallington and Charlie Mingus. He split much of his time during the second half of the Fifties working in either the Mingus Band or in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. In 1958 he formed his own quintet and for the next 10 years recorded prolifically first for Prestige and then for the Blue Note label.

In the late Fifties he found himself in a similar situation to Billie Holiday when his police cabaret card, essential to an artist working in jazz clubs in New York, was rescinded due to drug offences. He appeared on the New York stage, however, in the play about drug addicts The Connection and in 1961 appeared in the film version. He travelled to London with the production and stayed in Europe until October that year to appear in Paris. He rejoined the play in New York in 1963 and in 1965 led an all-star jazz quintet which he took to Japan. By now he was interested in free-form jazz as well as in Bebop.

In 1968 McLean joined the faculty of Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut and was appointed head of its Afro-American music programme in 1972. He began to make summer tours to Europe to play and teach, sometimes with his saxophone-playing son Rene, and he can be seen playing and teaching in the film Jackie McLean on Mars (1979).

During the Eighties, to enable him to expand his jazz career, McLean relinquished the chairmanship of his department at the Hartt School of Music, but continued to work as its creative director and founder-in-residence. He toured regularly and led a quintet with his son that appeared at the Village Vanguard in New York in 1990. In 1994 he and Sonny Rollins gave a concert together in New York and McLean appeared on the PBS show Jazz. He returned to the Village Vanguard in December 1995, when his quintet was made up from some of his former students.

McLean returned to Blue Note for the end of his recording career and his last work for the label was an album of ballads called Nature Boy (2000). He continued to tour the world as teacher and performer until his final long illness.

Steve Voce

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