Jackie McLean, the internationally
known jazz alto saxophonist, composer, and educator whose life and
career had a positive impact on countless city youngsters and numerous
proteges, died Friday at his home in Hartford after a long illness.
He was 74.
McLean's jazz reputation was based
on his distinctive, brilliant, emotionally moving alto saxophone
playing and creative composing. He was a superstar in Japan and
once jammed in a coffeehouse that carried his name and whose walls
were lined with virtually all of his recordings.
He was ranked among the top players
in jazz history as an alto saxophonist. His unique sound had a mesmerizing,
raw, urgent edge to it. One bar and you knew it was Jackie McLean.
And no matter how varied or bold his compositions might get, his
music always had a vital emotional core, a bright mix of soul and
intellect, an upbeat feeling and total lack of pretension that reflected
his own personality.
In Hartford - the New York City native's
adopted home since 1970 - McLean became known for his outstanding
jazz program at the University of Hartford's Hartt School. A pioneer
in bringing full recognition to jazz as a legitimate academic pursuit,
he established jazz studies as a degree program and founded the
Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the music school.
In the early1970s, McLean and his wife,
Dollie, founded the innovative Artists Collective, an African American
cultural and teaching center in the city's North End.
The Collective has given thousands
of youngsters the opportunity to learn about arts and culture, whether
in dance or music. The program, begun modestly in the old Clark
Street School, has under Dollie McLean's stewardship grown into
a nationally recognized program, even a role model for other nonprofits
serving community youth. It is now in an impressive, modern building
on Albany Avenue, a community beacon known as "the house that
Dollie and Jackie built."
"Jackie left us very quietly and
very peacefully at home, surrounded by his wife and children,"
Dollie McLean said. "He gave so much in his life that he's
still very much in our spirits and always will be."
Born in New York City, McLean grew
up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, where jazz seemed to be
alive everywhere. As a youngster, he would recall fondly in later
years, he visited the great bebop pianist Bud Powell in his apartment
and listened to the master play. Some thought Powell was reclusive,
but young McLean, a charming, modest kid, became a lifetime friend.
A wunderkind himself, McLean worked
with his friend Sonny Rollins in 1948-49 and in the early 1950s
worked with Miles Davis. When he was still a teenager, McLean made
his first recordings with Davis. Later he was the alto saxophonist
of choice for such jazz legends as Art Blakey, whom he viewed as
one of his great teachers, and Charles Mingus.
Wherever he played or whoever he played
with, his music always rang with freedom and passion and lifted
spirits. It was always top quality, never an opportunity to ease
up. "Every time you play," he once said, "you've
got to play your best and give everything you have as if it were
your last solo."
After his apprenticeship with Davis,
Blakey and Mingus, McLean created waves with his own ensembles,
particularly in the 1960s with a much-celebrated series of innovative
recordings for Blue Note Records.
Although he began as a hard-core bebopper,
McLean never stopped growing stylistically as an instrumentalist
and writer. Many artists are satisfied to find a comfortable groove,
and stay there. Not McLean, who right to the end strove to keep
evolving, always seeking something new, something fresh.
Early in his career, McLean became
the protege of the great Charlie "Bird" Parker, hanging
out with the mesmerizing saxophonist, playing gigs with him, even
loaning his horn to the perpetually broke, yet beloved older-brother
Unfortunately, McLean picked up on
not only his mentor's musical skill, but also his addiction to heroin.
Parker and a whole litany of bebop musicians died from the drug.
After years of struggle, McLean became one of the few great jazz
players of his generation to beat the addiction. Without Dollie's
support, he acknowledged, he could not have done it.
McLean not only beat heroin, but also
reinvented himself in Hartford as a teacher and social activist
out to improve the lot of city kids. Simultaneously, he sustained
a musical career that included, in his Hartford years, recording
sessions and national and world tours, including frequent trips
to Japan, where he enjoyed superstar status.
On one Japan jaunt, he was walking
along a street in Yokohama when he spotted a small nightclub with
a big sign proclaiming it to be "The Jackie McLean Coffeehouse."
Much to his amusement, he later jammed in that small shrine to himself
whose walls were lined with virtually every recording he had ever
That was just one small sign of his
universal acclaim far from his Hartford home where he created a
new life with Dollie and their children, Rene - a well-known saxophonist
who often toured and recorded with his father - Vernone and Melonae.
Although he was always regarded as
a world-class saxophonist, McLean, a modest, easygoing man, was
never one to blow his own horn for self-promotion.
As a teacher, he went out of his way
to develop talent in young players and rooted for and supported
his many proteges even long after they left Hartford. His "Jackie
MacLegion" of proteges who have gone on to success includes
Steve Davis, Sue Terry and Jimmy Greene.
"He was like a musical father
to me," said Davis, who has gone on to become an established
trombonist. "I don't play a solo without thinking of Jackie
McLean. He used his charisma and his talent to help so many in the
school and in the community. He was a giant."
He was remembered Friday night at a
popular jazz spot in West Hartford.
"Mr. McLean has been instrumental
in inspiring some of the finest young jazz musicians in the area
today," said Paul H. Lewis, owner of Szechuan Tokyo. Lewis
named three of the many musicians who studied under McLean - Josh
Evans, Dezron Douglas and Jimmy Greene. "It's the passing of
the torch," Lewis said.
"There are scads of young people
and gifted musicians who would benefit from just one lecture from
the coolest of the cool - Jackie McLean - and that's one of the
things that makes me sad about Jackie's passing," Lewis said.
"He was an active mover and shaker to keep jazz alive."
Dean Jones, 65, a trombonist who played
with McLean in the 1960s, said McLean was a crowd-pleaser. "He
played for the audience" and was "amazing, fantastic and
lovable," said Jones, 65, of Dean Jones Silver Sounds. "He
was always trying to help the younger people in the jazz field to
keep it going."
Besides his many recordings and compositions,
McLean would say, a key part of his legacy was the young talents
he had helped shape, not just with his teaching but also with his
gentle, caring personality.
Although his mother wanted him to become
a doctor and as a kid he toyed with becoming a visual artist, music,
and most specifically, his alto saxophone, was the core of his creative
"I'm always hearing music. It's
like you have a turntable or a CD player in your head," he
told The Courant in 2000.
"So when you ask who is the real
Jackie McLean, I have to say I'm a struggling saxophone player -
a player who's struggling to play the instrument to the highest
level that I think I was meant to play."
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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