Jackie McLean: Destination Out
A mix of stunningly angular modernism and greasy Silver-isms, this first release is nothing like any other hard bop records of the period, even including a lengthy unaccompanied and non-isometric drum solo on "Minor Apprehension." Around this time, McLean also began working with pianist-composer Freddie Redd, who wrote the music for the Living Theatre production The Connection, an existential drama concerning musicians awaiting their heroin fix in a Harlem apartment. Redd and McLean co-wrote much of the score and also acted in the play.
McLean has always had a knack for bringing up younger musicians in his bands, mentoring them much the same way Bud Powell did for him. Tenorist Tina Brooks is one example; the saxophonist's understudy in The Connection, Brooks quickly began recording with Jackie and Freddie Redd for Blue Note as a result of his easy facility and fleetness with the not-so-simple compositions. McLean went on to mentor musicians such as composer-trombonist Grachan Moncur III, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, pianist Larry Willis, trumpeter Charles Tolliver and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams.
Though only making two recording dates with McLean, Williams provides an interesting anecdote: "Tony Williams I brought down from Boston when he was 16 or 17. I couldn't believe what I heard, someone that young playing so much music. Of course I talked to his mother about him coming down. That's how he came to New York, and [eventually] his mother said it would be all right if he wanted to move in with some other musicians in the Village, and as long as his mother said it was okay... Then one night we were playing The Diplomat and Miles came by with Philly Joe Jones to hear the band, and I'm sure he came to hear Tony too because he was making people's hair stand up on end. He asked me 'hey Jackie, why don't you let me have that kid, man.' I said 'I don't care, Miles, I think that would be great.' I had already met another young drummer from Chicago that really excited me just as much, and that was Jack DeJohnette. It all happened at the perfect time; Tony went with Miles and Jack came into my band."
In the late '60s, as McLean's contract with Blue Note was winding down and changes (many positive) in the presentation of the music were afoot, he was approached by two students from Connecticut's Hart School of Music about the possibility of lecturing on black music at the school. "I went up and met the dean and they said they would be interested in me coming up one day a week to do some kind of class, so I started commuting. One day led to two days on up (that was '68 or '69), and then as 1970 approached, I went to them and told them 'look, I can't be everything to this music. I'm trying to do everything I can, as many different kinds of things - workshops and ensembles, history, but I need help. I need the beginnings of a department, and I need some other people with me.'"
McLean was given the status of department head, and went on to hire pianist Jaki Byard and saxophonist Paul Jeffrey as faculty. Around the same time, McLean and his wife began a cultural center in Hartford, the Artists' Collective, which puts on drama, dance, music, and visual arts classes: "We've had the program since 1972, but we were operating out of an old public school building at the north end of Hartford in the black community...we started raising funds in the mid '80s to put up our own building. It took 15 years, but my wife finally raised $8 million to put up a beautiful building here on Albany Avenue. Our program is over 30 years old and it has nothing to do with the university; it's an independent, nonprofit organization."
With all that he has done - shaping the direction of music after bebop from the standpoint of a bandleader, a saxophonist, a professor and a community arts activist - one has to wonder whether there is any stone yet unturned. For McLean, "right now all I'm trying to do is play the saxophone better and write some interesting music. I'm not really in the herd anymore; I just pick and choose my jobs, and I'm very close to doing some other things in life... Of course, I'm always going to be playing the instrument; I don't think I'd be happy without the music, but I'm not after it. There are so many saxophone players out there, and so many of them are so incredibly great. I want to just sit back and enjoy their contributions and continue to practice and play better." One can imagine McLean watching over the music that he has nurtured for years to come.
Classic Jackie McLean