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Cadenza: Jackie McLean, 1931-2006

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.”

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Originally Published

Gary Giddins

Gary Giddins is the author of 12 books, including Rhythm-a-Ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation (1985), Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), Weather Bird (2004), and the three-volume biography Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, of which two volumes have been published to date. Between 1974 and 2003, he wrote a regular jazz column for The Village Voice, winning six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards for excellence in music criticism. From 2002 to 2008, he wrote JazzTimes‘ Cadenza column.