The voice on the telephone in 2001 belonged to a man widely acknowledged as the greatest living alto saxophone player in the world. Jackie McLean was flattered an a little embarrassed by my pitch:
The University of Hartford was looking to raise $25 million for a massive performance arts center off Albany Avenue. The development had the potential to spur a cultural renaissance on a long-neglected strip that connects the Farmington Valley to downtown Hartford. But it needed a hook.
J-Mac, as he was known, was director of the university's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. A few blocks down the road stood the sparkling Artists Collective cultural arts building, the long-shot dream of Jackie and his wife Dollie McLean.
The city, I suggested, should rename the strip of Albany that runs from the university to the Collective "McLean's Way" branding it as a cultural corridor on the rise.
"I would be very honored," McLean said then, during a teaching break. "I mean, gee whiz, that would be very nice." He expressed hopes that the Collective and university could work cohesively on their respective cultural arts agenda.
"If we could keep those people involved with the Hartt School [of Music] and the Artists Collective meeting regularly and making sure that we hold hands and complement each other, with integrity, this could be a wonderful type of partnership," McLean said. "I just don't want us to step on each other's toes."
The street-name idea stalled. McLean died last year after a long illness. Friday would have been his 76th birthday. The university's performance arts center plans, however, are moving forward. Groundbreaking for the 71,000-square-foot building is June 8.
With McLean's spirit and consciousness, the performance arts center and the Collective will server as bookends to what can still be an emerging city cultural corridor in this impoverished community.
The John Rogers African American Cultural Center is looking for a home off Albany Avenue. A new math and science magnet school will soon be built on the university's campus. Now, maybe someone will come up with an idea to revive the defunct Craftery Gallery, once a showcase for African American art on The Avenue.
Jackie's son, Rene McLean, is teaching music and African American history at UHart and leading the youth jazz ensemble at the Collective will be attending the university as freshmen. J-Mac would be damn proud.
"My mother and father envisioned the Collective's purpose and function in terms of providing resources in our community to empower our children so that they can go into life and be successful in whatever endeavors they choose," Rene McLean said.
Jackie McLean, a New York native, was a former heroin addict. He used his story to inspire street kids like himself to find fulfillment through music, culture and education. His influence on music was global. His value to Greater Hartford has been under-appreciated.
Today, from 1 to 4 p.m., the city of Hartford is officially recognizing the Woodland Street section abutting the Artists Collective as "Jackie McLean's Way."
"He's rightfully being embraced by the city of Hartford as one of our great contributions to the world of music," said University of Hartford President Walter Harrison. "In a way I see his spirit guiding our efforts in North Hartford."
Call it a small, heartfelt gesture to one of jazz's giants.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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