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Sax Master Never Lost His Passion

April 1, 2006

I was always fond of telling folks that the great Jackie McLean - Hartford guy and jazz legend - is recognized as the greatest living alto saxophone player in the world.

I was talking about the future of Hartford Thursday to political science professor Darryl McMiller's class at the University of Hartford. I reminded the students that McLean, director of UHart's Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz, was one of the campus' premiere assets.

He brought the university cultural cachet and worldwide jazz credibility in his three decades there. At the same time, McLean and wife, Dollie, became Hartford's first couple of the arts. They founded the Artists Collective, and opened a sterling building on Albany Avenue, a few blocks from campus. Hundreds of city and suburban children are trained there each year.

The death Friday of the ailing McLean, at 74, is huge.

Expect the jazz world, Connecticut and his legions of fans and protégés to come out and celebrate his remarkable life.

This was a New York City kid who overcame a heroin addiction, poverty, and racism. Despite his struggles, he stayed so disciplined and passionate about his craft that he gained global fame. Even in his late 60s and early 70s, McLean was gigging around the world to Japan or Europe.

I was an unabashed admirer - and frankly I'm not even much of a jazz buff. I simply appreciated McLean's resilience, his advocacy for black empowerment, his dedication to his gift and his commitment to uplifting others, including protégés such as Nat Reeves, Steve Davis and Jimmy Greene.

Plus, McLean put the C in cool.

We'd chat on the rare occasions I'd see him out, always vowing to one day do an extensive interview. I saw him perform on several occasions and he always made sure his ensemble received the love from an audience that came to see him.

University of Hartford President Walter Harrison remembers arriving eight years ago and staying overnight at a family's house in north Hartford. Jackie and Dollie came by for a visit and Harrison says he was a little nervous about meeting the celebrity musician, until they started talking.

"He was such a classy guy," said Harrison, reached Friday night in Indianapolis where he is attending an NCAA conference and the men's Final Four.

"There was a presence about him and a warmth. ... This is a devastating loss to the world of jazz. Jackie was one of the giants of the jazz world. Maybe, THE giant.

"He not only was a musician, but someone who inspired generations of jazz musicians," Harrison said. "He also was a magnificent teacher. There are generations of University of Hartford students who learned about jazz and life from Jackie."

McMiller was hanging out last night in the city at Tisane's with Rich McGhee, an alto sax player from Hartford who studied McLean's music. Both are fans. Both were saddened.

"I'm in shock," McMiller said. "He's a national treasure. He was a musician, an educator and he helped launch the career of numerous people on the scene now, and of course [his work in co-founding] the Artists Collective."

McGhee, 50, said he remembers McLean's music of the 1960s and 1970s. He'll remember McLean for incorporating "political activism into modern jazz" and for being outspoken about equal rights.

"He was an aware black man who knew his place in the world," McGhee said.

And the jazz world will keep a place in its heart for one of its pioneers.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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