Classic Jackie McLean
JM: Alan is very close to Eric McPherson and me. In fact, the first cut Mr. E is something I wrote for Eric. Alan came to my program at Hartt about seven years ago. He has developed over these past years into not only a magnificent pianist, but a wonderful composer. And, of course I kept him close to me; I gave him a debut at Lincoln Center in 1990. He is not only performing with my band, but he also works with a lot of hip-hop groups. He has some wonderful ideas about fusing the concepts of this traditional music with current hip-hop rhythms. I think he's going to do really magnificently. I'm waiting to see which record company is going to be smart enough to pick him up and let him do his own thing.
GW: We talked about when you got your first instrument, which I believe was actually not an alto, but a soprano.
JM: A silver, straight soprano that I hated at the time because all other saxophones were gold and curved; so I felt like I didn't have a real saxophone.
GW: Tell the story about how you introduced your son to playing.
JM: He was nine and he first started playing the guitar, but he kept coming in the room and sitting around when I was practicing, so he finally asked for a saxophone. I said, "look man you're not going after that guitar so strong. If you want to play this horn, you have to really commit yourself. I'm going to give you a mouth piece and you blow on it for awhile, and then we'll see where it goes." I gave him a mouth piece with a big #2 1/2 reed. He tooted that thing and blew it all around the house. Finally, my wife Dolly said to me, "please give him something else to play on, that thing is driving me crazy." So I gave him the neck to an alto. He had the neck and a mouth piece, and he played on that for maybe about another two weeks or more. Then I put the whole horn together and gave it to him. He had a nice sound immediately. I did it that way, because I wanted him to not have one of those honking beginner's tone on the saxophone. He started playing with a very nice sound at age nine.
GW: The sacrifices that parents make. Now you and your wife went through a lot of pain there when all he had was that little mouthpiece. Later on René developed his skills and studied with you and other folks. Then one day you noticed he was playing the flute?
JM: I'll never forget that. He came home one day from school and was back in the room playing the flute. He had been playing it without telling me for about six or seven months. I said, "hey man what is that?" He said, "I play the flute now too." So I said, "wow that's wonderful Rene." But when I left the room, I was very jealous and upset because I had never played the flute, so I went right out the next day and bought a flute. Rene helped me get started. We played duets together.
GW: Isn't that great, what goes around comes around. You had the luxury, the opportunity, the privilege and I guess the pain in some respects to work and learn with two grand teachers of this music, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus. What did you learn from each of them?
JM: From Mingus I learned what boot camp was like, because he worked us. He was a slave driver in terms of rehearsing and getting that music together. I also learned a great deal about having an individual sound and expanding and extending my concept of the music. I was still very much on Bird's [Charlie Parker] trail when I joined Mingus' Band. I never really sounded like Bird, but that was my mission. I didn't care if people said that I copied him; I loved Bird's playing so much. But Mingus was the one that really pushed me away from the idea and forced me into thinking about having an individual sound and concept. That's what I got from Mingus. With Blakey, I had the most wonderful experience being in a band. I learned how to grow up and be a man around Art. He was an incredible individual, and a wonderful band leader. He had a fatherly role that he played as a band leader. If you had a toothache, he took you to the dentist. He looked out for everybody in the band, and he also was very much into bringing young musicians into his band and helping them develop.
GW: So many people went to the "University of Art Blakey" if you will. We talked a bit about the informal lessons and knowledge that you got from people like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and of course from hanging out in Sugar Hill. All of these experiences you are passing on through the Artists Collective that you founded and ran for over 20 years with your wife Dolly. Talk a little about this.