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New Jackie McLean Biography Barely Scratches Surface

British Author Relies On Secondary Sources To Tell Legendary Hartford Saxophonist's Life Story


October 10, 2012



By Derek Ansell (Northway Publications, 207 pages, $29.95)

When reading Derek Ansell's absorbing, studiously detailed accounts of jazz great Jackie McLean's numerous remarkable recordings, you'll wish that, through some high-tech magic, you had instantaneous access to every single one of these recordings.

Thanks to the London-based Northway Publications and Ansell, a British jazz and classical music critic, you'll want to devour every note on every LP and CD assiduously assessed in "Sugar Free Saxophone: The Life and Music of Jackie McLean" (207 pages, $29.95). Ansell's informative, enthusiastic overview of the legendary alto saxophonist/composer's oeuvre — everything from the early fiery Prestige recordings to the later cerebral Blue Note classics and beyond — is a vast panorama of passion and creativity not to be missed.

Ansell promises in his book's title to bring us both "the life and the music" of McLean. That's no small task even for a seasoned journalist/biographer like Ansell, a published novelist who's currently working on a book on John Coltrane.

Ansell's problem is that there's just too much to cover with McLean, an artist with a highly dramatic personal narrative that calls out for both a definitive biography and a Clint Eastwood bio-pic. You can't possibly cram all McLean's music and all McLean's living into just 207 pages, even if you're as ardent and artful as Ansell.

As the teller of McLean's life story, however, his virtually total reliance on secondary sources restricts him to merely scratching the surface of things in marked contrast to the probing depth of his musical chronicle.

McLean, who once told the New York Times that he "always wanted to be remembered for being something more than a saxophone player," was multifaceted as a musician/educator and multi-layered as a compassionate human being.

An internationally celebrated jazz figure, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, innovative educator, social activist and longtime Hartford resident, McLean is ranked among the greatest jazz alto saxophonists of the 20th century. A dazzling soloist, his affecting, bittersweet tone and fluent phrasing made him one of those rare jazz musicians whose sound is so deeply distinctive that you can identify it after hearing just a couple bars, maybe even less.

Among many major accomplishments, McLean founded the Artists Collective, a nationally celebrated cultural and educational arts center ensconced in Hartford's North End, serving many thousands of youngsters over the decades.

An easy-going, always fair-minded and friendly individual, McLean certainly had none of the killer shark instincts of the classic Organization Man.

He not only organized and founded the Artists Collective, with strong support from his wife Dollie and other energetic idealists in the Hartford community, but also created the groundbreaking Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford. Both of these now long-standing, successful organizations — two of McLean's great contributions to society — have achieved national acclaim.

Admitting that he was "inspired first and foremost" by McLean's music, Ansell, without doubt, delivers on the "music" half of his title's promise with his survey of McLean's recorded legacy. His commentary and discography are a vital reminder of the depth and breadth of McLean's recordings from his early period right up to his later period, including some fine but sometimes forgotten releases on Triloka Records.

While touching on the biographical basics — including McLean's dramatic, life-and-death struggle with heroin addiction and his heroic, storybook triumph over the killer drug — Ansell is much leaner when sketching "the life" side than he is with his in-depth view of "the music" side.

Nonetheless, Ansell is a most sympathetic biographer, and does make many valid points about McLean, the man.

He cites McLean's incessant striving as an adult to be always at the top of his game, whether in music or as an educator. Or, for that matter, even in his self-appointed mission to make life better for everyone he dealt with, whether it was a student at The Hartt School, or someone he encountered in passing who just so happened to be down and out and in need.

His philosophy of constantly giving, helping and caring was best summed up in his own words in a personal axiom he sometimes repeated: "What's the good of being a great saxophonist, if you're a lousy person?"

Ansell also does a good job at tracing the maturation of McLean, outlining his evolution from an extremely gifted but perhaps a bit lazy teenager who was reluctant to learn tunes he could easily pick up after hearing just a couple times, or even faster.

From the teen wizard, who wanted to rely totally on his terrific ear and quick intelligence, Ansell shows us how McLean grew into and thrived in his chosen adult roles as a serious scholar of jazz history and African culture. Besides mastering jazz, the onetime Harlem whiz kid became a man of many diverse intellectual interests ranging from art to contemporary history, all the while studiously transforming himself into an excellent teacher and a respected, articulate spokesman for the music.

As part of his progressively evolving, forward-looking self, McLean even became the quintessential example of the perpetual seeker of ways to expand one's music, while also, as part of his self-development program, constantly expanding his views and knowledge of the wider world itself.

McLean, who began as a brilliant teenage protege of the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was famously known as Bird, was even an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary artist, a point Ansell stresses.

Although McLean could have stayed securely in place as a magnificent hard bop swinger, he deliberately chose, instead, never to remain at rest either aesthetically or intellectually.

Although he had won a cozy pile of laurels for his past accomplishments, he chose never to rest on them. And being an extremely modest man, he never bragged or even talked much about them. His eyes were on the prize in the present and the future, not the past. An outstanding, even revered charter member of the second generation of the Bebop Revolution, he could easily have stuck with the tried and true until retirement.

Instead, he began expanding his musical palette in the 1960s by incorporating the new, bold colors and abstract shapes of free jazz, the new thing, the new music.

While grooving on the new, however, he never abandoned his core sense of tradition, his deep roots in modern jazz embodied by bebop and the modern jazz innovations of such close personal friends and gurus as Bird and the bebop piano genius, Bud Powell.

Before he became ill and died at 74 on March 31, 2006, surrounded by loved ones in his Hartford home, McLean had demonstrated that great music, whether labeled mainstream or cutting-edge, transcends all convenient categories. As Ansell notes, he hated labels.

So instead of becoming conventionally and safely dogmatic, he began experimenting with and incorporating free jazz into his writing and playing.

As an acknowledged grand master of bebop, hard bop and the blues, he dared to take that giant step into free jazz, a genre that more conservative critics of the period mocked as faux jazz and scorned as an unholy hoax perpetrated by poseurs.

No one ever accused McLean, an always powerful, evocatively emotional soloist, of being a poseur in his nearly 60 years on the scene during which, as Ansell writes, "he never compromised or diluted his music to give it mass appeal."

Nonetheless, the cross over to free jazz by McLean, the consummate hard bopper, was viewed by devout mainstreamers as heresy. It was a mortal sin made even more egregious since here was McLean, one of Bird's greatest, handpicked apostles — literally the chosen one — defecting to the other side. (Actually, as Ansell perceptively notes, McLean never really lost the faith he was raised in, but only expanded on bebop, which he loved his entire life, no doubt, right up until the day he died.)

Ansell captures this restless side of McLean as a creative artist — particularly with his close-up studies of individual recordings, moving us as close as we're ever going to get to enjoying a bird's-eye view of these historic recording sessions.

As a guide through McLean's diverse discography — especially when discussing such crown jewels as "Bluesnik," "Let Freedom Ring" and "A Step Beyond"— Ansell provides an excellent road map for any tourist, either new or old, traveling through the exciting world McLean created with his recordings.

Yes, Ansell touches on many key bio elements ranging from McLean's epic triumph over heroin addiction, a plague that decimated so many of his jazz contemporaries; his formative childhood in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem; his loving but complex, little brother-like, worshipful relationship with Parker, who was an ethically flawed genius; and his acting and musical tour de force performance in Jack Gelber's Samuel Beckett-like play of despair about drug addicts, "The Connection."

Attention, of course, is also paid to the then young, brilliant apprentice's life-shaping, learning stints with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus (a rewarding albeit tumultuous, even once violent association) and Art Blakey. Under Blakey's mentorship, McLean learned how to run a band properly and how to be a guru to young people, nurturing them and guiding them, as he would later do on a massive scale as an educator for decades at The Hartt School.

As a spare but totally sympathetic biographer, Ansell deserves credit for getting some of the essential matters of this good and decent man's character exactly right.

For example, he stresses that for McLean, even in the depths of his darkest, most agonizing years of addiction, his love for his family-- his devotion to his strong, perpetually supportive wife Dollie and their three children-- was always paramount, always rooted at the very core of his existence. As Ansell succinctly sums up: "…the two most important aspects of his life: his family and his music."

That indestructible, remarkably resilient love, Ansell writes, "explains McLean's success story against all odds, and his determination to succeed and keep his family intact through all the dark and harrowing times that heroin addiction had inflicted on him."

Besides being the central loving, supportive pillar of strength in McLean's life through sickness and in triumph, Dollie has been, and still is, a creative force of nature in her own right. The founding executive director of the Artists Collective, she is a longtime shaker-and-doer on Hartford's cultural scene.

Quite openly, the author acknowledges that his research was devoted to secondary sources, with no sign of full-scale, sit-down interviews with such primary sources as family, friends and fellow musicians.

Whatever he gathers from his diligent sweep through written and filmed sources, he skillfully orchestrates into his book, along with his own independent commentary, insights and periodic recommendations for the best albums you absolutely have to own.

Among his varied secondary sources are vintage liner notes, McLean's famously candid interview on Ken Burns' TV documentary, "Jazz," and the documentary "Jackie McLean on Mars." As would any serious study of McLean, reference is also made to A.J. Spellman's classic "Four Lives in the Bebop Business," a seminal study of McLean, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Herbie Nichols.

Ansell does get across McLean's deep sense of decency, his affirmative, open-minded attitude about life, his ecumenical spirituality and grace under pressure. All these qualities helped him become a great, inspiring, even universally beloved teacher — that plus his warm sense of humor and natural skill as a great storyteller.

Aside from his artistry, another pivotal piece of McLean's permanent legacy is the array of former proteges who have marched out from The Hartt School to triumph in the jazz world.

For years, many members of the Jackie Mac Legion have been making names for themselves. At the same time, they've reflected, in some subtle way, their mentor's beneficent influence as an artist, guru, role model, father figure and, perhaps most significantly, as a compassionate man who cared deeply not just about his art but also about people.

Even six years after his death, McLean's is a vibrant, living, legacy that only a handful of artists of any kind ever get to bequeath to the world.

No doubt, this generous man would be enormously pleased knowing that his far-flung corps of proteges is on the move around the world, a dynasty perpetuating his deep sense of values, both musically and spiritually, exemplifying his philosophy of always trying to do the right thing both on stage and off.

Ansell's lean account of McLean's personal life does touch on at least a significant part of it. But obviously not in the depth and door-stop tonnage of such recent blockbuster bios recounting the life and art of Thelonious Monk and Randy Weston.

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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