Jackie McLean – The Battler from Sugar Hill
In the last issue of The Jassman I talked about altoist Lee Konitz and his determination to escape the enormous influence of Charlie Parker and here I should like to look at an alto player who made no bones about being a Parker disciple and yet managed to de-velop his own distinctive style and go on to become one of jazz’s most important soloists.
Born in Sugar Hill, Harlem, from the start John Lenwood “Jackie” McLean (1931 – 2006) was embroiled in the world of jazz, having as school friends the likes of Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and the legendary Andy Kirk Junior.
Jackie’s father, John Sr, was guitarist in Tiny Bradshaw’s or-chestra but died when Jackie was just six years old so the young McLean was raised by his step-father who owned a record store on 141st Street.
It was while working at the store that Jackie met Richie Powell, brother of the great Bud Powell, and Jackie soon became close to the Powell family, hanging out with Richie and visiting and listen-ing to Bud.
Apart from an R ‘n’ B date at the age of seventeen when he played baritone, his first recording was on the 1951 Miles Davis album Dig (Prestige) which also featured Art Blakey, Walter Bishop, Tommy Potter and Sonny Rollins. Rollins commented on a website after Jackie’s death, “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.”
McLean gigged with Miles on and off in the next few years and Davis reports that on his first Birdland gig Jackie was so nervous (and high, according to Miles Davis – by this time he had unfortu-nately succumbed to the temptations of heroine) that, after seven or eight bars he left the stage, ran outside and puked. After Miles had checked that he was all right Jackie returned to the stand and, as Miles said, “played his ass off”. Over the next few years he recorded with Gene Ammons, George Wallington, and Charles Mingus (the albums Pithecanthropus Erectus and Blues and Roots find him in explosive form) and was a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (Jackie’s playing on the album Ritual illustrates how far he had travelled from being a Parker sound-alike to hav-ing his own voice).
In various interviews his attitude to his period with Mingus var-ied, sometimes refusing to discuss his tenure with the bassist at all and at others reporting that he learnt a lot from the disciplines that Mingus imposed on the players. It has been reported that Mclean at one point was so incensed by Mingus’s bullying tactics that he pulled a knife on the leader and had to be restrained.
In 1959 Jackie tried acting and appeared in Jack Gelber’s stage-play The Connection which toured the US and Europe in 1961, enabling him to visit London for the first time after which he re-mained in Paris for a short period. The play was filmed (later re-leased on DVD) and the music from the production, written by Freddie Redd, was released on a Blue Note album, The Music from the Connection.
Jackie McLean’s first album as leader had been The New Tradi-tion for Ad Lib Records in 1955 but he then went on to make a series of sometimes impressive but often uneven albums for Pres-tige (uneven, in that, despite exemplary blues playing on albums such as “A Long Drink of the Blues” and “Strange Blues”, the line-up on some of the sessions sometimes included, inexplicably, the somewhat elephantine and musically cumbersome tuba of Ray Draper).
In A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business Jackie, without naming the label, made it clear that he was unhappy with the financial arrangements at Prestige – describing his time there as like being “under a Nazi regime”.
Consequently, he moved to Blue Note where, between 1959 and 1967, he changed from being fairly ordinary to exceptional, re-cording a series of albums – as leader and sideman – which are re-markable for their intensity, combining fierce blues playing, ten-derly executed ballads and ingenious compositions, all with a hard and slightly sharp tone that firmly established his reputation as an individualist amongst post-Parker bebop altoists.
This period was without question his finest and the body of work it encompassed was, in my view, never surpassed. I remember buying Bluesnik and, after hearing the title track, attempting to proselytize my friends and family by playing it over and over again at high volume. (My marriage survived but my non-jazz friends for the most part remained indifferent to its power and passion.) For those of you who like your jazz to be hard-driven, uncompromising and edgy, I recommend “Bluesnik”, as men-tioned above, “Capuchin Swing” and “Let Freedom Ring”, the latter being a successful attempt by McLean to broaden his ap-proach to take into account the innovations of the Free Jazz school and the influence of players like Ornette Coleman (with whom Jackie later collaborated, with mixed results, on “New and Old Gospel”, also for Blue Note).
In 1968 Jackie joined the music faculty at the Hartt School of Mu-sic at the University of Hartford, Connecticut where he eventually became the head of the school’s Jazz Studies program and later founded the Artists Collective, providing local youths with the opportunity to become involved in African-American arts, music, theatre and dance.
While remaining in the academic world he resumed his perform-ing career in the 1980s touring Europe and Japan (I was thrilled to see Jackie at London’s Roundhouse Theatre during this period, where he played a breathtaking set accompanied by Spanish pian-ist Tete Montoliu, bassist Ray Drummond and one of my favour-ite drummers, Billy Higgins. Attending the gig involved a round-trip of over 200 miles in one evening but, when you’re faced with a rare opportunity to see one of your heroes in the flesh, the miles mean very little).
The 1990s were also successful years for Jackie, with excep-tional albums such as “Dynasty” and “Nature Boy” and he made regular appearances at the Village Vanguard, New York, often
with his old friends Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins. He died at his home in Hartford on the 31st March 2006 and received many tributes from his colleagues and friends. Sonny Rollins said, “Jackie was a major figure. He’s got his records as his legacy and his contributions to musical education. I’ll miss him as a friend”.
In a recent edition of the excellent magazine The Note, altoist Phil Woods related an incident in the 1950s when Jackie came to Nut City, Greenwich Village, where Woods was playing and, af-ter returning a mouthpiece that he had borrowed, asked Phil to accompany him to Café Bohemia to hear the Oscar Pettiford band. As Phil Woods recalled, a stout gentleman came to the stand and began playing, whereupon Phil and Jackie looked at each other and said, “Oh, shit!”. The stout gentleman was Julian Cannonball Adderley but, as Shakespeare’s Richard II says, I run before my horse to market so I’ll talk about Cannonball in our next issue.
Four Lives in the Bebop Business – A.B. Spellman – Pantheon Books 1966
Miles – the Autobiography – Touchstone Books 1990