Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean has maintained a prolific career as a performer and composer that has spanned four decades. Here he talks about his latest Blue Note release Fire and Love,
career experiences and his steadfast work as a music educator.
Gary Walker: On your latest recording Fire and Love are your son René McLean on tenor, Raymond Williams on trumpet, Steve Davis on trombone, Alan Jay Palmer on piano, and drummer Eric McPherson — all under our tutelage at one time or another these gentlemen here. I want to talk a bit about your informal education, growing up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. That must have been one hell of a garage band you guys had back there as teenagers.
Jackie McLean: Ah yeah. It was a marvelous neighborhood to come up in with so many wonderful musicians residing in that area like Duke Ellington, Nat Cole and so many other people. Benny Carter stayed around in that neighborhood [as well as] Don Redman and Arnett Cobb. It was just celebrities walking the streets everyday, and of course the younger generation of musicians. We had the great Sonny Rollins as one of our leaders in that community along with Arthur Taylor, a wonderful trumpeter named Lowle Louis? and a wonderful group of musicians.
GW: For those who don't know, where is the Sugar Hill section of Harlem?
JM: It's around Nicholas Ave. and Amsterdam Ave., above 145th St.
GW: You were fortunate as a youngster to have not only a father who was a musician, a guitarist I believe with Tiny Bradshaw, but also a stepfather. This is where you really got into it; your stepfather owned a record shop.
JM: Yes, and my godfather played the saxophone in the church choir. That's where I was introduced to the saxophone.
GW: Through the years early on in your career, you were filling-in for Charlie Brucher, actually by your second recording date. Many people call this your first recording date, but it was not. I believe that you did an R&B recording.
JM: Yes, with Charlie Singleton? called Camel Walking and Hard Times are Coming. I played baritone, no solos. It was my first recording session.
GW: The recording session that many people listen to as an introduction to Jackie McLean is the 1951 date Dig with Miles Davis. You were 19 at that time. You learned at lot from those guys didn't you?
JM: I certainly did. I was very fortunate, especially being in Bud Powell's company from about the time that I turned 15. Those two years between ages 15 and 17 were very important years for me. When I look back to when I first played with Miles, I was only playing the saxophone for four years and I think that much of my growth happened because I was in such good company.
GW: It was a time of discovery for many people, and jazz musicians. There was an excitement and a passion for the music and the discovery of it. Dizzy Gillespie almost daily was knocking on the door over at Monk's house saying try this chord, slamming the door and leaving. Does that kind of passion and exchange of ideas go on as readily today?
JM: Yes it still does. That time was in the early 1940s with Dizzy and Monk. I came along of course at the second wave of a third wave of young musicians coming along in that period. They called it the bebop revolution of which I was a part. But my door still knocks and it's Alan Jay Palmer or somebody. So there's still that hunger. The young musicians today are carrying this mantle along in a very wonderful way. I'm very happy about these young musicians that are coming along today.
GW: You perpetuate this with your role as artistic director and program developer at the Hartt College of Music at the University of Hartford.
JM: Right, I founded that [African Amercian music] program. When I first went there it was strictly a classical conservatory. I first came on board as an instructor in 1968. It took a couple of years, but they finally started helping me develop the Department of African American Music. I worked my way up from instructor to associate professor, to assistant professor and then to full professor. By 1981 we had a full degree program of which I was founding chairman. I kept that position until about four years ago when I gave up the chairmanship to a wonderful young student of mine. Steve Davis is teaching in the program as well as Nat Reeves and many others.
GW: Your new recording Fire and Love marks your return to the Blue Note label. Your biggest body of work was for Blue Note in the 1960s. Steve Davis, who plays trombone on the new album, does some beautiful writing, as well as Alan Jay Palmer on the piano.
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.
JM: While I was developing my program at the Hartt School, Dolly and I, along with several other fine artists around Hartford, began to develop a program in the inner city called the Artists Collective. It teaches young people and families about music, dance, drama and the visual arts. We started out doing things in store fronts and then we started operating out of the an old public school building in 1975. Then we started thinking about the possibility of putting a building up ourselves because we were outgrowing the old school building. Dolly raised the money, and I'm happy to say that the building is up and we are in the finishing stages now. We have a beautiful theater in the building, wonderful classrooms, and practice rooms. It's just a gorgeous dream come true.
GW: How does someone get their child involved in the Artists Collective?