Jackie McLean came of age during the height of the bop era and was taken under the wing of some of the jazz giants of the period. After completing his apprenticeship as a side man in numerous groups, McLean struck out as a leader in his own right. As the bop era waned, McLean made a successful transition into the new era of experimentation, joining some of the most adventurous younger artists in creating what came to be known as free jazz. Like any other saxophonist his age, McLean developed in the shadow of Charlie “Bird” Parker, but McLean quickly established his own voice. As jazz historian Ted Gioia has noted in The History of Jazz, McLean’s “sparser, more jagged approach” distinguished him from other Bird followers; McLean conveys “the spirit of Bird—his intensity, his drive, his raw emotion,” but the sound itself is unique. In addition to his stellar achievements as a musician, McLean has added educator and community activist to his resume and, for over 30 years, has been bringing the message of jazz to inner city youths.
Born John Lenwood McLean, Jr. on May 17, 1932, in New York City, Jackie grew up in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district, a community flush with musical talent. McLean’s father, John Lenwood McLean, Sr., was a guitarist who played with Tiny Bradshaw. The senior McLean died in 1939, but Jackie McLean found musical role models among his neighbors, among whom were some of the most notable musicians of the time: Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. The younger McLean took up the alto saxophone at the age of 15. The legendary bop pianist Powell gave McLean music lessons, teaching him chord changes and what Ira Gitler described in his liner notes to Lights Out! as “the important lesson of ‘time.’” Although McLean has listed Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk as his favorite saxophone players, he has also claimed, according to Gitler, that “Bud Powell is my inspiration.”
Powell introduced McLean to jazz great Charlie Parker, who would become a major influence on the young alto player as he searched to find his own sound. In 1951 McLean debuted at Birdland, where he was introduced by mentor Powell. Also that year the 19-year-old McLean and his friend Sonny Rollins recorded with Miles Davis for a release on the Prestige label, Dig! It would, however, take a few more years before the young musician garnered special attention for his playing. McLean fine-tuned his chops and, by 1955, found himself playing with the likes of Paul Bley, George Wellington, and Charles Mingus. In addition to participating in Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, McLean began a stint as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1956.
At the same time McLean asserted himself as leader of his own group and recorded a number of albums for the Prestige and New Jazz labels, including the 1956 releases Lights Out! and McLean’s Scene, and 1957’s Strange Blues. By the end of the decade McLean had
Born John Lenwood McLean, Jr. on May 17, 1932, in New York, NY.
Began professional career playing with Miles Davis, 1951; member Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1955-59; released first album under own name, The Jackie McLean Quintet, 1955; Lights Out!, 1956; performed in off-Broadway play The Connection, 1959-61; began association with Blue Note label, 1959; released 21 albums on Blue Note, 1959-68, including Jackie’s Bag, New Soil, 1959; Bluesnik, Fickle Sonance, 1961; Let Freedom Ring, Hipnosis, 1962; One Step Beyond, Destination Out!, 1963; Consequences, 1965; High Frequency, 1966; New and Old Gospel, 1967; began association with Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, Connecticut, 1968; founded Artists Collective, in Hartford, with wife Dollie, 1970; released Live at Montmartre on Steeplechase label, 1972; released Monuments on RCA, 1979; retreated from studio, concentrating on playing and teaching, 1979-88; released Dynasty on Triloka label, 1988; active as performer and recording artist, 1988-2002.
Awards: New School University (New York), Beacon of Jazz Award, 2001; National Endowment for the Arts, Jazz Master, 2002; Down Beat, Jazz Education Hall of Fame, 2002.
Addresses: Office —Artists Collective, 1200 Albany Ave., Hartford, CT 06112-2104.
securely established himself as one of the premier young musicians coming out of the hard bop tradition. He also showed an inclination to venture outside the boundaries of his art, appearing off-Broadway in the Living Theater’s production of The Connection in 1959.
In 1959 McLean began a long and fruitful association with the Blue Note label. Jackie’s Bag, his first album for Blue Note, was released in 1959, followed quickly by Vertigo and New Soil, each released the same year. Jackie’s Bag was a transitional recording that bridged the gap between McLean’s hard bop past and the decade of free jazz he was about to enter.
During the 1960s—a highly productive decade for McLean—he served a crucial role bridging the gap between the older musicians he had learned from and the younger generation of experimentalists who extended the boundaries of the music with what was termed “free jazz.” McLean’s openness to new ideas is characteristic of the man and is rooted in his own formative experiences as a young musician. As he told Down Beat’s Aaron Cohen in 2002, “At first I was the young one who was playing with all the jazz masters. Getting a chance to perform with great people like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey. It’s sort of a bug that bit me—Art Blakey inspired me to continue looking to young people for inspiration because he certainly did.” Some of the standout recordings of this period are New and Old Gospel and One Step Beyond.
In all, McLean would record 21 albums for Blue Note before ending his association with the label in 1967, when he moved to Steeplechase. Included among the albums McLean would record with his new label are two done with his early musical idol, bop saxophonist Dexter Gordon. McLean would continue to record for Steeplechase and other labels throughout the seventies, including a brief stint on RCA, but he had become less active as a player. Instead he devoted himself to teaching.
In 1968 McLean began his association with the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, an affiliation he continues: he is now the school’s artistic director. In addition, McLean and his wife Dollie founded the Artists Collective in 1970, teaching music, dance, drama, and martial arts to the inner city youths of Hartford. Concerning his many years of work at the Hartt School and the Artists Collective, McLean told Down Beat in 2002 that “We’re trying to keep the community clean and keep the kids inspired to go and make something of themselves, whether it’s a doctor or a musician. We offer them the arts as a means to study and something they’d really enjoy doing on another level. It’s worked well. We’ve been blessed.”
In the 1980s McLean returned to playing live, sometimes with his son Rene, but he did not return to the studio until 1988. That year McLean recorded Dynasty for the Triloka label, his first release in nine years. McLean became more active, recording a number of albums for the Triloka, Verve, Antilles, and Steeplechase labels before returning to Blue Note with 1996’s Hat Trick. This album was followed by 1998’s Fire and Love, which features son Rene on tenor saxophone.
On April 2, 2001, McLean was honored with a Beacon of Jazz Award from the New School University’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program in New York. The following year McLean was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and was also inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Education Hall of Fame.
The Jackie McLean Quintet, Ad Lib, 1955.
Lights Out!, Prestige/OJC, 1956.
4, 5 and 6, Prestige/OJC, 1956.
Steeplechase, New Jazz, 1956.
Jackie’s Pal, Original Jazz, 1956.
McLean’s Scene, New Jazz/OJC, 1956.
Jackie McLean and Co., Prestige/OJC, 1957.
Strange Blues, Prestige/OJC, 1957.
Alto Madness, Prestige/OJC, 1957.
A Long Drink of the Blues, New Jazz/OJC, 1957.
Makin’ the Changes, Original Jazz, 1957.
Jackie McLean Plays Fat Jazz, Jubilee, 1957.
Jackie’s Bag, Blue Note, 1959.
Vertigo, Blue Note, 1959.
New Soil, Blue Note, 1959.
Swing, Swang, Swingin’, Blue Note, 1959.
Capuchin Swing, Blue Note, 1959.
Street Singer, GXF, 1960.
Bluesnik, Blue Note, 1961.
A Fickle Sonance, Blue Note, 1961.
Let Freedom Ring, Blue Note, 1962.
Hipnosis, Blue Note, 1962.
The Jackie McLean Quintet, Blue Note, 1962.
Tippin’ the Scales, Blue Note, 1962.
One Step Beyond, Blue Note, 1963.
Desination Out!, Blue Note, 1963.
Jackie McLean Sextet, Josie, 1963.
It’s Time, Blue Note, 1964.
Action, Blue Note, 1964.
Right Now, Blue Note, 1965.
Consequences, Blue Note, 1965.
Jacknife, Blue Note, 1966.
High Frequency, Blue Note, 1966.
Dr. Jackle, Steeplechase, 1966.
Tune Up (live), Steeplechase, 1966.
New and Old Gospel, Blue Note, 1967.
‘Bout Soul, Blue Note, 1967.
Demon’s Dance, Blue Note, 1967.
Live at Montmartre, Steeplechase, 1972.
Ode to Super, Steeplechase, 1973.
A Ghetto Lullaby, Inner City, 1973.
The Meeting, Steeplechase, 1973.
The Source, Steeplechase, 1973.
New York Calling, Steeplechase, 1974.
Altissimo 1974 (live), Philips, 1974.
Antiquity, Steeplechase, 1974.
New Wine, Old Bottles, Inner City, 1978.
Contour, Prestige, 1978.
Monuments, RCA, 1979.
Dynasty, Triloka, 1988.
The Jackie McLean Quintet, Fresh Sound, 1989.
Rites of Passage, Triloka, 1991.
The Jackie Mac Attack Live, Verve, 1991.
Rhythm of the Earth, Antilles, 1992.
Perception, Steeplechase, 1994.
Montmartre Summit, 1973, Steeplechase, 1995.
Hat Trick, Blue Note, 1996.
Fire and Love, Blue Note, 1997.
Nature Boy, Blue Note, 2000.
Giddins, Gary, Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz and American Pop, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Down Beat, May 2000, p. 70; June 2001, p. 18; June 2002, p. 26.
“Biography: Jackie McLean,” Blue Note Records, http://www.bluenote.com/artistpage.asp?ArtistlD=3378&tab=1 (November 16, 2002).
“Jackie McLean,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (November 16, 2002).
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes of Lights Out!, Prestige/OJC, 1956.