Plagued as we are by historicism, it is not always easy to really hear the music of Charlie Parker as it was played in the clubs or even in studio rehearsals. In some ways, the importance of the artist is more through students and followers than in the firsthand practice of that artist: painter Hans Hofmann is more greatly felt through Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, and so the lineage and importance of Bird is felt in Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Lyons. But these alto men are and were their own, not mere "Ornithologists," just as de Kooning is not Hofmann. Jackie McLean, having come up in bop and maturing on the cusp of the avant-garde, is one of the most recognizable post-Bird altoists, as much "The Preacher" as "Lonely Woman".
Jackie McLean was born May 17th, 1932 in New York City. His godfather Norman Cobbs was a saxophonist and played in church, but when Jackie first heard Lester Young on record, his fate as a saxophonist was sealed. He first started on soprano at 14, studying at the New York School of Music, but most of his education came from his peers and his elders: "Lessons [at the School] were 50 cents, and you sat in there like in a dentist's office, waiting for the teacher to call you in one at a time. They take you in there, you're in there about 15 minutes and then you're gone. I did that for a while, but I had a knack for it because I started catching up to other kids that started playing before me and became better than them in months."
A year later, on his 15th birthday, McLean switched to the alto. He studied briefly with Andy Kirk, Jr. and Foots Thomas, but an encounter with Bud Powell brought him into the bebop cognoscenti: "That was the luckiest day of my life when I met him. I had just turned 15, and when I went up and met him at his house with his brother, it was just incredible. It was all on a dare, because nobody believed his brother [Richie] was who he said he was. I was standing there and I was caught, but I didn't know Bud Powell - I didn't know what he looked like, I didn't know anything about him. He asked me "You don't believe I'm Bud Powell?" and I said, "well I don't know." He went over to the piano, sat down and started playing and I thought "oh my God, I'm standing in this room with the master!"
As McLean hung around with Powell, his musical knowledge - "as much as he played out of the style of Charlie Parker, he also went along another branch and played another interpretation of Bird" - and his connections among the nascent bop scene helped to mold the young saxophonist's concept. Powell, after all, helped McLean get his first real job with Miles Davis, eventually leading to a contract with Prestige Records. He also introduced him to Bird, who was at that time trying to bring to jazz elements of European art music - McLean's first heard Stravinsky's Rites of Spring at the suggestion of Charlie Parker.
During McLean's tenure with Miles' band, he began working on composition. One that was crucial for both his art and that of Miles was "Little Melonae," an early example of modal playing: "It had bars and bars of the same chord and was built on an AABA structure, but the chords were mostly modal with the turnaround going into the bridge, and half of the bridge was like "A Night in Tunisia" but the rest of it was modal. Miles liked that, and that was a jump right there." McLean recorded this tune (or other versions of it) a number of times, as did his compatriots, and with this piece were sown the seeds of his mature style: modal tunes that acted like they had changes, but were in fact a very different breed of composition. Andrew Hill, Wayne Shorter, and others in the Blue Note stable were most certainly keen on McLean's developments.
After his contract at Prestige ended, McLean signed to Blue Note in a rather prophetic move that resulted in well over 30 recordings over a 10-year period: "It just so happened that Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff came to the club one night and asked me if I would be interested in the possibility of recording at Blue Note. It was just the right time, so I went up there and they said "Jackie, you would be in charge of all your recordings and have the people you want play the music you want. You can write your own music. As long as it's not something that we would hate - and we doubt you would write something that we would hate" So I went ahead and started recording with them." After an abortive session that later turned up on Jackie's Bag (and which included a rare piano-less McLean quartet on "Quadrangle"), he recorded New Soil in 1958 with pianist Walter Davis Jr., trumpeter Donald Byrd, the ubiquitous Paul Chambers on bass, and a young Pete La Roca Sims on drums.
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