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Jackie McLean

(5.17.32 – 3.31.06)

Jackie McLean

We were a group of like-minded boys, in our teens, who were aspiring musicians. Naturally, we all gravitated toward each other. The primary area was the Hill, or Sugar Hill, but we attracted people from all over Harlem who actually became part of the “inner circle.” I met Jackie as part of the inner circle. I was a little older than Jackie, so he might have thought I knew some things, but we were basically the same age.

A good friend of his that I was even closer with was Lowell Lewis. Lowell lived across the street from Jackie, and they were tight. They lived about six or seven blocks north and west from where I lived.

There was a humongous group of musicians living up there, from the most famous to the guys who were in their bands and so on. If there was anybody on the Hill that was into something noteworthy, we all knew about it. And we all shared the special bond of our musical aspirations.

The inner circle was comprised of people such as Gil Coggins, who was maybe five years older and already playing in clubs. Gilly hung out with us a lot. The older guys often had families, while we were just guys interested in music 24 hours a day.

Kenny Drew was in the inner circle, as were Lowell Lewis, myself, Arthur Taylor, Jackie and Walter Bishop, and Andy Kirk Jr., although Jackie was not in the band that we had, The Counts of Bop. As we got older, honing our skills, established musicians who were on the lookout for young talent began hiring us.

Kenny Drew was the first to get hired to work downtown. Arthur Taylor might have been the next guy. Lowell went with Thelonious Monk while we were still in high school. I began with Babs Gonzales, then Fats Navarro.

I started working with Miles first, and then Jackie and I were playing with Miles at the same time. Jackie, because of his age, came in a little later playing with Miles. That was the only situation where Jackie and I played together. Jackie was always an extraordinarily bright, gifted player. His ascendancy was assured-there was no doubt he’d be recognized sooner or later.

When Miles was coming out with a lot of the “cool” sounds, it was sort of alarming to many people in the jazz community because of the emphasis on the softer side of the music. Then, when Miles came out with Jackie and myself, we really asserted the hard-bop element, which was a relief to many in the community. So Jackie has to be remembered for his pioneering work in breaking through what was threatening to be a movement of “coolness” in jazz.

But we can’t talk about the musicians identified with the Hill without addressing “the scourge.” As everybody became addicted, each and every one of us, we ended up having something else in common. First it was music; then it became the search to satisfy our drug habits. That brought us into other spheres of hell. But in a sense it was another bond that we shared-notwithstanding its negativity, it was a shared experience. We went through drugs, fought it off, and still managed to keep our careers going.

Our professional paths diverged somewhat early on. In the late ’50s, we happened to end up living not too far apart on the Lower East Side, so we were neighbors again. As I recall, Jackie was responsible for getting Slug’s opened up and on the map. I know he was there quite a bit.

What happened then was I moved to downtown Brooklyn, and Jackie and Dollie moved to Hartford. He was still playing and recording, but I had no idea of the extent of his involvement in education. That was a big surprise to me. I did play up there for Jackie and Dollie’s Artists Collective; this must have been in the ’80s. So I knew that he was doing something up there! But I came late to the understanding of this aspect of Jackie. He did wonderful work with young musicians and helping to turn out players.

All of us came up under Charlie Parker’s wing, but as years went on Jackie was able to transcend that style. He exemplified that in his playing. He was an innovator, and he was able to easily bridge generational gaps in the music. And Jackie certainly had a distinctive sound, part of a player’s character that’s sadly in short supply today.

I spoke to Jackie not too long before his passing. I didn’t know the extent of his illness; I think they kept that kind of quiet. It was a shock when the news came, because knowing him for so long I expected him to always be there.

Jackie was a major figure. He’s got his records as his legacy and his contributions to music education. But as for how he should be remembered, he’s too close for me to say. I’ll let our esteemed critics do what they do. And I’ll miss him as a friend.

(As told to Terri Hinte)

Originally Published