Thursday, 29 June 2006
Jazz legend Jackie McLean dies in Hartford
Contributed by Don Berryman   
Image American alto saxophonist and educator John Lenwood (Jackie) McLean (born on May 17, 1932), died on March 31, 2006 in his home town of Hartford after a long illness. He recorded with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins on the album Dig when he was only 19. McLean was known for his unique scorching sound and for pushing the limits of bebop, hard bop and beyond. Jackie was also notorious for having stabbed Mingus after being punched and fleeing to join Blakey's Jazz Messengers. His Bluenote recordings, One Step Beyond and Destination Out, and work with Grachan Moncur III marked a turning point in modern jazz and remain fresh and edgy today (although at the time they were considered very "out").

Jackie McLean has been an enduring force in jazz since the early 50s, and a distinguished educator since 1968. Long the possessor of one of the most recognizable alto saxophone sounds and styles, from the moment one hears that yearning, searching, slightly acidic alto tone one knows that Jackie McLean is in the house and that one is in store for some truly no-nonsense music-making. His agressive style has served the music well, from the time he came on the scene as a second generation bebop saxophonist, through his explorations of the leading edges of jazz creativity, through his mentorship for some of the brightest young talents in the music.

Jackie's father John was a guitarist who performed with band leader Tiny Bradshaw. McLean's instrumental odyssey actually began on the soprano saxophone, though by the time he was 15 the alto saxophone had become his permanent vehicle of choice. Jackie's earliest studies came through the tutelage of Foots Thomas, Cecil Scott, Joe Napoleon, and Andy Brown in his native New York City. Another of his informal teachers was piano master Bud Powell. McLean's most significant early band affiliation came during the years 1948-49 when he joined a Harlem neighborhood band led by tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and including pianist Kenny Drew. McLean's stints with the Miles Davis band, between 1949-53 yielded his first recording sessions as a sideman (reissued as Miles Davis, The Blue Note and Capitol Recordings, Capitol; Miles Davis, Dig, Original Jazz Classics; and Miles Davis, Odyssey, Prestige). His work with Miles marked the beginnings of what became known as hard bop, an advanced progression on bebop.

Image From Davis it was on to work with pianist George Wallington, drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and bassist Charles Mingus, during Jackie's busiest period as a sideman, mid-late 1950s. Through working with Davis, Blakey, and Mingus Jackie was part of three organizations which have yielded some of the greatest musicians in the annals of modern jazz. McLean's first recording as a leader came on October 21, 1955 when he cut a quintet date for the Ad Lib label. His second, which has been reissued on CD, was Lights Out alongside his fellow Jazz Messenger, trumpeter Donald Byrd. From that point on Jackie McLean was an acknowledged band leader in his own right.

Throughout the 1960s Jackie McLean continued to work with his own bands and occasional all-star aggregations, and the pull of social activism became stronger. In 1959-60 he acted in the off-Broadway play The Connection, a cautionary tale dealing with jazz, and the perils of drug abuse, which evolved into a 1961 film. In 1967 he took his music into prisons, working as a music instructor and counselor. The beginnings of the culminating action in his social and community activism came in 1968 when he moved to Hartford, CT to take a teaching position at Hartt College of Music of the University of Hartford. It was in Hartford that Jackie and wife Dollie founded the Artists Collective, a widely-hailed combination community center/fine arts school, primarily aimed at youth. The Artists Collective opened a beautiful new building in 1999 following years of residence in a former schoolhouse in one of Hartford's most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

At the University of Hartford Jackie McLean has established the school's African American Music Department and subsequent Jazz Studies degree program. The program has instructed a number of exceptional young jazz musicians, including saxophonist Antoine Roney, drummer Eric MacPherson, saxophonist Abraham Burton, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Alan Palmer, and saxophonist Jimmy Greene among others. And none of Jackie McLean's exemplary educational activity has in any way dulled his alto saxophone or his musical outlook, both of which remain razor sharp and vital.

McLean received an American Jazz Masters fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. His son Reno is a jazz saxophonist and flautist as well as a jazz educator.

Biographical info is from the IAJE.