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A Farewell Of Note

April 8, 2006
By FRANK RIZZO, Courant Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- More than 1,000 family, friends, students and musicians said goodbye to Jackie McLean in song and prayer Friday at the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he received his first saxophone as a boy.

The many worlds of McLean - musician, educator and activist - were recognized at the final amen for the man who played with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey and other jazz legends.

The famed jazz alto saxophone player, teacher at the University of Hartford's Hartt School, and founder, with his wife, Dollie, of the Artists Collective on Albany Avenue, died March 31 at age 74 in his home in Hartford's North End.

The procession began with a recording of "You Taught My Heart to Sing," written by McCoy Tyner, from the album "It's About Time," with McLean on sax and Tyner on piano.

Saxophonist Jimmy Heath followed with a poignant presentation of Thelonious Monk's signature song, "'Round Midnight," followed by "Left Alone," a recording of McLean playing with the Mal Waldron Trio.

Vocalist Eunice Newkirk, who often sings in Abyssinian's choir, performed "Amazing Grace," and the service concluded with McLean's recording of Bud Powell's "I'll Keep Loving You."

The sendoff attracted jazz musicians such as pianist and educator Billy Taylor, saxophonist Gary Bartz, saxophonist Bill Saxton, drummer Warren Smith, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, bass player Larry Ridley, pianist Larry Willis, tenor sax player Gene Ghee and trumpeter Freddy Hubbard. Also in attendance were Tony Keller, the first director of Connecticut's State Commission on the Arts, and his wife, arts curator Andrea Miller Keller, of West Hartford.

A chartered bus left Hartford at dawn, carrying friends and family to the church near Sugar Hill, the neighborhood where McLean grew up. During the service, Hartford city treasurer Kathleen Palm Devine thanked Jackie McLean for "the thousands of children whose lives he saved" as she presented a proclamation from Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. Hartford had been McLean's home since 1970.

McLean's immediate family, his children, Rene, Vernone and Melonae, and his wife and artistic partner, Dollie, who wore an impressive black and white hat, were seated in the front. A stream of well-wishers offered condolences before the 90-minute funeral.

The service was officiated by the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III at McLean's boyhood church, the site of funerals for other music greats, including Count Basie, Luther Vandross, Art Blakey and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

"I'm so happy you brought him home," Butts said, addressing McLean's family. He noted McLean's close connection as a youth to the Harlem YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

It was McLean's godfather, Chief Norman Cobbs, a saxophonist in Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian church, who gave Jackie his first instrument, a soprano saxophone, when he was 14 years old, according to the program for Friday's service.

A year later, the young McLean received an alto saxophone from his mother and stepfather. "Working at his stepfather's record store, Jackie listened to records of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon. He developed a preference for the harder, tenor sound that influenced his unique tone and sound," according to the program.

"There was something deep in Jackie that caused him to spread his love through his music," Butts said in his eulogy. He noted that McLean's contribution went beyond his art. "There is evidence of stewardship. A legacy we can look at, study and learn."

In Hartford that evidence is the Artists Collective and the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School.

Thandiwe January McLean, McLean's daughter-in-law and South Africa's ambassador to Portugal, referred to "Papa Jackie" as the "best storyteller she had ever come across."

"There is not a township in South Africa that does not know the sound of Jackie McLean," she said.

McLean's friend from childhood, Gilbert Noble, spoke of the day when both listened to a recording by Charlie "Bird" Parker and "we had never heard anything quite so stunning." Noble characterized McLean's commitment to education by instructing his students to "first put down your instruments and learn black history, learn where the music comes from."

Noble, a TV producer (ABC's "Like It Is"), called the Artists Collective "a repository for our stories and music."

"What he has given to this country and this world will reverberate forever," Noble said. He encouraged the gathering to "put your shoulder to the wheel and see that his story is told."

Butts ended by saying, "Jackie's life is one that deserves celebration. We wish he was here himself."

McLean was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.


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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