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Blues For Jackie

Saxophone Great Nurtured Young Musicians

April 1, 2006
Courant Special By OWEN McNALLY

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 figure.

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 made

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 life.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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