In July 1975, Jackie McLean returned to action after a seven-year layoff spent teaching. The venue was New York’s briefly reawakened Five Spot, on St. Mark’s Place, packed every night with fans and musicians ignited by his combustible alto saxophone and dynamic septet. One evening, the band was finishing a set with a piece by Jackie’s trumpet player, Terumasa Hino: McLean roared through a barbed and biting solo, then suddenly stopped and disappeared from the stage. He returned minutes later to play an even more rambunctious second solo, topped off with a mocking “Frere Jacques” quote.
Coming off the bandstand, he grabbed my arm (I had recently spent an afternoon interviewing him in his mother’s sunny apartment, overlooking the Hudson River) and said, with characteristic delight, “Man, you just witnessed something historical. This was the reed I played that first solo on.” He held it up triumphantly: It had a gash an eighth of an inch wide and just as deep from the top — by all mortal standards, an unplayable reed. Marveling anew, he added, “That’s impossible. I’m gonna save this forever.” At which point, someone noted that Sonny Rollins had been in to hear the set. “Yeah, Newk was there,” Jackie said. “That’s why I played the second solo. I didn’t want Sonny to think I hadn’t done my homework.”
How could you not love a guy like that — passionate, smart, funny, boyishly sincere and always a bred-in-the-bone player? We did love him, everything about him, growing up in the ’60s with his Blue Note albums; reading his candidly recalled travails with drugs and law enforcement in A. B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business; watching him in Shirley Clarke’s film of the Jack Gelber play The Connection, which had kept him working for four years when he didn’t have a cabaret card, interpreting the uncanny Freddie Redd tunes that fixed McLean as everlastingly as a picture frame.
Above all, we loved his sound, which set his detractors’ teeth on edge: dark and rich, round and hard, caustic but celebratory, and, oh yes, slightly sharp or maybe flat. It was — it is — the sound of a man with a mission, a storyteller who could stop time and sear the soul. Or, as he put it, “It’s just my sound.” The sound was part of a style that included raspy asides and a motif-based approach to improvisation. A typical McLean solo will find him playing a fragment, and then repeating it even though the chords have changed, heightening the tension. Too melodic and intricate to qualify as mere riffs, these phrases keep the listener pleasurably suspended in the moment before McLean resolves them.
Born in 1931 in Harlem, a teenage wunderkind like his friend Sonny Rollins, he found his calling in 1944. His stepfather owned a record shop on 141st Street and loved Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington. Johnny Hodges, he told McLean, is “what an alto is supposed to sound like, not what you’re doing.” One day they were unpacking records in the store, and his stepfather said, “Here’s a new one by Trummy Young.” McLean said, “It was ‘Seventh Avenue.’ When I heard the alto solo, I stopped working — I just couldn’t believe it — and I said, ‘Listen to that alto.’ He said, ‘That’s a tenor.’ I said, ‘That’s an alto!’ He took the record off, looked at it and said, ‘Somebody named Charlie Parker. You’re right, it’s an alto. I don’t think I like that.'”
McLean was sold. “Now’s the Time” and “Koko” followed, and he went to see Bird at a concert in Lincoln Square. “I was in love, you know,” McLean said. He soon acquired a pantheon of mentors. Bud Powell taught him to play changes by ear. Other guides included Miles, Mingus, Blakey and Monk: “We all learned from Monk. I looooove Monk.” He began recording, in 1951, with Davis — Rollins, Mingus and Blakey were also at the session — and soon he was recognized as a Parker acolyte with a difference. His phrasing had a harsh glare, fewer notes, waspishly asymmetrical phrases, a firm ground beat. He could kill on the blues but he was more surprising on ballads, for which he found the most dramatic possible tempi.
Drugs derailed McLean but he bounded back, inspired by Ornette Coleman and the avant-garde, recording such breakthrough albums as Let Freedom Ring, with its definitive, hair-raising treatment of Bud Powell’s “I’ll Keep Loving You,” and Destination…Out!, an enthralling highlight of his fruitful collaboration with Grachan Moncur III. His music had a contagious honesty: Musicians played at their best as his sidemen, just as he gave his all in his many sideman appearances — who can forget him on Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus or Abbey Lincoln’s The World Is Falling Down?
Similarly, when McLean turned to teaching, it was never just a gig — it was a full-time commitment and then some. He began conducting workshops at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School but insisted on teaching history as well. By 1972, he was chairing a new African-American music department, which later became one of the first of its kind to offer degrees; in 2000, it was renamed the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. At the same time, he and his wife, Dollie, founded and ran the Artists Collective, an arts center in Hartford. Among many young musicians whose careers he advanced are his son, Rene McLean, Michael Carvin, Abraham Burton, the Harper Brothers, Antoine Roney, Nat Reeves and Alan Jay Palmer.
The 1990s proved to be the start of a tremendously gratifying period in his playing. In addition to exceptional new albums like Dynasty, Rhythm of the Earth, Hat Trick and Nature Boy, McLean became a regular at the Dizzy Gillespie memorial celebrations at the Blue Note and helped usher in Christmas several years running at the Village Vanguard, teaming with Cedar Walton and, until his death, Billy Higgins. At a 1995 concert, Rollins introduced Jackie as “the battler of Sugar Hill,” and damned if he didn’t steal the evening with two specialties, “Solar” and “A Cottage for Sale.”
Jackie McLean died March 31 at home in Hartford. He was 74. But does a heart like his ever really stop beating?