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A Conversation with Jackie McLean

Courtesy Francis Wolff / Mosaic Images

AAJ Staff BY

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From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in October 1998.

All About Jazz: You grew up in the same neighborhood as Bud Powell. How did he impact your life? And, what was Bud Powell the man like?

Jackie McLean: He certainly lived in the vicinity of my neighborhood. He wasn't really a neighbor. I lived on 158th street and he lived on 140th, so it was quite a distance to walk. But still, you would consider him in the neighborhood. He impacted my life by allowing me to come to his house and become a friend of his, even though I was much younger. The difference between our ages made a big difference back when I was like 15 and he was like, 23 or 24. But I was able to go to his house on a regular basis. Every week I went, sometimes spending the whole weekend down there; Friday night, Saturday night. Being around him and hearing him play and being part of the family, with his wife and his little brother, Richard, and his mom. It was a great experience for me and it really propelled my learning ability; it helped me really grow as a young musician.

AAJ: You were also a close friend of Charlie Parker, how much of an influence was he on you playing style and you personally?

JM: Well, he was the one that made it possible for me to love the alto saxophone. I really was in love with the tenor when I first started, and I really wasn't crazy about the alto at all. But, after I heard him play I began to love the alto and tried to pattern my style after his. It was through Bud that I really got a chance to meet him up close and personal. He was always very kind to me, always very encouraging to me, and he was definitely a big influence on my musical career.

AAJ: By any standards you have had a remarkable career. What keeps you going? What keeps your intensity up?

JM: Well, it's a drive that's deep inside of me to continue to try to play the saxophone better and to make my improvisation remain in stride with the times. I'm really not happy with playing the saxophone the way I played it 20 years ago or 10 years ago. I am always looking for fresh pastures and I find that developing young musicians and working with young musicians helps me to keep that kind of intensity going.

AAJ: You often encourage younger musicians, both as an educator and as an innovator. What do you feel the younger musicians have that you and your peers did not? And what do you feel they lack?

JM: Well, I don't think they personally lack anything. I think the world is quite different now and there are minuses and pluses in their world. When I was coming along, there were less musicians and there was a large group of great masters that had bands and so therefore you had an opportunity to play in these bands and grow. I mean, when I went with Miles, when I was only playing four years. When I look back to that and think about that, it just seems impossible to me. When I meet kids now, that have been playing 8, 9, 10, 11 years at a very elementary stage of their development and I think back to when I was only playing four years, I'm standing up on stage with someone like Miles Davis or Sonny Rollins, even though Sonny and I were peers. He's a couple of years older than me. But Sonny was an incredible musician and so therefore it was just awesome. I think that your musicians today don't have these kinds of experiences most of the time. The Art Blakey's and the Dizzy Gillespie's and all the wonderful bands, Miles, all of those bands are not available to them now. So therefore, with my band I try to fill that void and so for the last number of years I've been having very young guys in my band, most of which I've developed in my program here in Hartford at the University of Hartford, the Hart School of Music, and also at the Artist Collective, where I am in touch with a lot of young beginners that come into the program to learn.

AAJ: How do you feel the environment for jazz domestically has changed over the past 30 years?

JM: Well, the traditional music which we call jazz, the traditional music of America has lost its place and that place has been filled with more commercial and a whole different kind of music that's not as involved as traditional music. So a kid can learn to play a few chords on a guitar or piano and put some words to a little melody and find a hook or something that he repeats over and over again and he's got a song, and America's audiences are fed this kind of music over the media; the radio, the television, so it's taken the place of the more involved musician. In the '30s, in the '40s, and in the '50s, those decades, the traditional music of America was more complicated. So the audiences heard the music on the radio and were able to go to theaters in New York presented these bands like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and different bands that played the music. The music was available to the public at large, and so they developed an appetite for it.

But now young people don't want to take the time to sit down and listen to the music from an intellectual point of view, if it doesn't have some kind of beat or melody that repeats a thousand times, over and over again, they're not interested in it. They've become an apathetic listening audience that hasn't been fed or nourished with this more incredible music. But I am happy to say that there is a large segment for young talented musicians that are coming along today that are not in that group. They definitely are going back and following the music, even its inception, if they get the opportunity to come into a program like mine at the Hart School, to go all the way back and hear the music of great musicians like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and musicians that have contributed to this art form. It isn't presented in a way where they think they're listening to something that's dead and corny and old fashioned. They're listening to the music the same way that the music is studied in the Western classical tradition. No one thinks that Bach and Beethoven are unimportant today. They're very important and that's how the music is taught in schools and that's what has to happen here in America. It has to be that young people in kindergarten from K on up get a chance to hear both worlds of music. They need to hear the western classical music and they need to hear the classical music of the United States of America. If this music is presented in a positive way and they will grow to be a wonderful listening audience and the music will thrive.

AAJ: So do you feel as an educator that you have a duty or an obligation to teach the youth about the music we call jazz?

JM: It is my most important mission besides playing it. I play it and I study it and I am always working at it, but I have a hunger to go into an environment where young people are and teach about this music from the Artist Collective which is the cultural program that I've developed in Hartford, my wife and I. We go into the public schools with a group of my young students at the university and we do a program called Charlie Parker Played Bebop. It's a program designed for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, in which they get a chance to be introduced to this music in a fun kind of way. They come away with the name this music in a fun kind of way. They come away with the name, this music in [a] fun kind of way. They come away with the name in their minds, with the idea that Charlie Parker was a genius, and with understanding some very basic qualities of this music.

AAJ: Let's talk about your album Fire & Love. Your son Rene is on the album with you. This isn't your first time working with him. How do you feel his progress has come as a father and as a musician, how do you feel he is?

JM: I think Rene has done very well. He is a man in his own right. He has followed in the tradition and helped innovate the music and his own concept, and through his writing and his performing, I think he has done very well. He's also followed me into education, he's over at the University of Capetown, teaching there in South Africa. I think he is doing quite well. It's a very difficult business and the way the music is marketed today it's difficult for musicians in his range, from his decade today it's difficult for musicians in his range, from his decade to make a living. If you look today, where are these musicians, these great musicians that were so prominent in the '60s? Where is Grachan Moncur III? Where are these people? They're still around but they're not getting a chance to be heard and the record companies and the producers are not going after them. They're bypassing a whole slew of incredibly talented musicians; the Curtis Fuller's. There's so many of them, not that Curtis isn't playing from time to time, but he's just not as exposed as much as he should be for his great, great talent. So therefore, it's sad that these people are not being heard.

AAJ: Are there any young artists you have your eyes on?

JM: So many! There's a whole bunch that have come out of my program. You must know of Abraham Burton, a young alto player that I think is one of the finest young musicians on the scene. Eric McPherson, an incredible young drummer. Alan Palmer, who's on the record with me. He and Eric, a wonderful young pianist and composer. There's a young tenor player, that came out of my program last May, who's been working with Horace recently named Jimmy Greene. All those young musicians are wonderful, besides which there's a whole slew of young musicians who haven't come out of my program that I think are incredibly great.

AAJ: How did you select the tunes for Fire & Love?

JM: The music came out of the MacBand book. We had a huge book because everybody in the band writes so you had Steve Davis' tunes in there, you had Rene's tunes in the book, my tunes, Alan Palmer's tunes. We just chose some of the tunes that hadn't been recorded with the septet, went into the studio and did them. We had no problem finding music because we have over fifty tunes in that book for the MacBand. That band is kind of sitting on the back burner right now. I'm getting ready to come out with a smaller group, with a quintet, and right now I'm in the process of getting music together for that band.

AAJ: Any plans to tour for the new album along the West Coast?

JM: I'm always hoping that I'll be coming out to the West Coast to play. Whether it is with my own group or with a rhythm section like the Cedar Walton trio, who I have appeared on the West Coast with in recent times. But sure I'm always looking forward to coming out to the West Coast to play because I have so many people out there that love the music.

AAJ: Is it difficult from a monetary standpoint to play along the West Coast?

JM: It's difficult for clubs to book if they don't have a situation where several clubs are coming together to help pay for the transportation and other expenses that go with moving a group like my band. It's hard for my band to come out there, six pieces, cause that's six airline tickets, [and] six hotel rooms. So if two or three clubs, I'd stay up in Seattle, and in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, and other cities, like San Diego, if all of those clubs get together and book together, it works very well. You come out and go from one place to the other and it cuts down on overhead.

AAJ: Influences?

JM: Everybody influences me. I listened to some Lester Young. He was really my first big influence. Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Don Byas, Miles Davis, there's so many people that have had an influence on me, it's hard to just choose a few. There's always somebody else that comes to my mind [and] later on I say, "Oh, I forgot to mention this person or that person." Many, many people have influenced me, not only in this artform, but in western classical music as well.

AAJ: Favorite standards?

JM: One of my favorite ballads has always been "'Round Midnight." It's a beautiful, beautiful piece that does great justice to melodic line and chord progression, and I like that. There's so many beautiful ballads written for Broadway shows and other standards, so many that I like to play.

AAJ: What other instrument do you want to play?

JM: I like the drums. That's really the instrument that I started out and I was in love with in the beginning. I used to drive my mother crazy, beating around on her hatboxes and pots, before I became serious about studying music. But I also like the piano, and I think I would like to play the tenor saxophone. I love the tenor.

AAJ: Describe your life's philosophy.

JM: Vibe and keep trying. That's the best. Stay in good health and stay in touch with your original mission. If you love it, stay on it, and don't let anything pull you away. Like everybody else, I have my days when I'm not excited or I'm depressed about music and depressed about anything else in my life, but that's just the normal part of life. Everyone goes through that. I don't hold a monopoly on happiness and I don't have a monopoly on being depressed, thank God. So, I just try to get up everyday and practice and continue to teach and I am very happy to say that my wife, who has been raising money for the last twelve years to put a building up in Hartford, the Artist Collective Cultural Program. We've been working out of an old school building and we've outgrown it. She has been raising money for all those years and at last that building is almost completed. It will be finished in June and then we will have a brand new facility and that's going to be very exciting, not only for me and for my wife Dolly, but it's going to be exciting for the city for Hartford. We will be able to teach and bring in many, many more young people to our program. We've taught thousands. The program is twenty-five years old. Thousands of kids have gone through that program. Many people like Cindy Blackman, who is a magnificent drummer. She got her first drum lessons at the Artist Collective when she was eleven years old. So we're doing positive good things. We're trying to teach kids the art and at the same time we're trying to save them from drugs, from early pregnancy, and from all kinds of negative things that we're faced with in the world today.

AAJ: Outside of your playing influences, who inspires you personally?

JM: I am inspired by Bill Cosby's love for the music and I think that he is a fantastic human being. He certainly has help us in putting this building up and supporting our program by lending us his name and image to raise funds. He certainly tries to support the music in every possibly way, through his shows, through his personal appearances in clubs when you perform, and you look up and there he is in the audience. All of that is positive. I don't know of any other entertainers at his level that support this music as much as he does. I think he is certainly one of my heroes, but there are many others: Malcom X, Charlie Chaplin, many people that I love and have brought me much joy in my life, Orson Wells. Loads of people that have brought joy to my life.

AAJ: If your life were a book what chapter would you be on?

JM: I probably would be in the fall of my life. I have passed through the most of my life. I'm not a young man anymore, but I feel wonderful. I'm in good shape. I just went to the doctor and had a good physical. I'm in good shape. My pressure's fine, my heart's in good condition. I'm doing well so I'm thankful. I guess I would be, I don't want to say near the end of my life, I would never want to say that, I'd just say I'm three quarters through my book.

AAJ: What's in the future?

JM: Well, I'm working on a project now to go into the studio again with Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, and make another recording and hopefully this will be something we can do this year, in the Fall. I'm looking forward to that.

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