John Lenwood (Jackie) McLean was an alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader and educator, born in New York City.
His father, John Sr., who died in 1939, played guitar in Tiny Bradshaw's orchestra. After his father's death, his musical education was continued by his godfather, by his stepfather, who owned a record store, and by several noted teachers. He also received informal tutoring from neighbours Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. During high school he played in a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins, and Andy Kirk Jr. (the tenor saxophonist son of Andy Kirk).
He recorded with Miles Davis, on Davis' Dig album, when he was 19 years old. Rollins played on the same album. As a young man McLean also recorded with Gene Ammons, Charles Mingus, andGeorge Wallington, and as a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (he reportedly joined the Jazz Messengers after being punched by the notoriously violent Mingus and, fearing for his life, stabbing him in self-defence). His early recordings as leader were in the hard bop school. He later became an exponent of modal jazz without abandoning his foundation in hard bop. Throughout his career he was known for his distinctive tone (often described with such adjectives as withering, piercing, or searing), his slightly sharp pitch, and a strong foundation in blues.
McLean was a heroin addict throughout his early career, and the resulting loss of his New York City cabaret licence forced him to undertake a large number of recording dates; consequently, he produced a large body of recorded work in the 1950s and 60s. He was under contract with Blue Note Records from 1959 to 1967, having previously recorded for Prestige. Blue Note offered better pay and more artistic control than other labels, and his work for Blue Note is highly regarded.
In 1962 he recorded Let Freedom Ring for Blue Note. This album was the culmination of attempts he had made over the years to deal with harmonic problems in jazz, especially in soloing on his piece "Quadrangle." (*"Quadrangle" appears on BST 4051, Jackie's Bag, recorded in 1959). Let Freedom Ring began a period in which he performed with avant-garde musicians rather than the veteran hard bop performers he had been playing with. His recordings from 1962 on, in which he adapted the innovations of modal and free jazz to hard bop, made his body of work distinctive.
In 1964, he served six months in prison on drug charges. The period immediately after his release from prison is known as his acid period because the three albums he released during it were much harsher in tone than his previous albums.