Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean was one of the most talented young Harlemites who followed Charlie Parker down the path into drug abuse and addiction. He recovered from these challenges to become a prolific hard bopper, then one of the few beboppers who opened his ears to free jazz, and a pioneer of jazz education and youth advocacy.
McLean was born on May 17, 1931 in New York, New York, and grew up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, which runs from 145th street to 155th street between St. Nicholas and Amsterdam Avenues. Growing up, his neighborhood was home to the era's most successful African-American musicians, such as Duke Ellington and Benny Carter. Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker were neighbors too.
McLean’s father John was an accomplished guitarist who played in singer and drummer Tiny Bradshaw’s band. McLean’s godfather played the saxophone in church, and this is where the young boy was first introduced to the instrument. McLean’s stepfather also owned a record shop in Harlem and provided him with some of his first exposures to jazz and blues.
Young Jackie started out on the soprano saxophone, which he played for about six months before switching to the alto by age fifteen. He studied with Cecil Scott, Walter "Foots" Thomas and jammed with neighborhood kids, including Kenny Drew and Walter Bishop Jr. By seventeen, he had formed a band with Drew, Andy Kirk, Jr., and a young tenor player named Sonny Rollins.
Bebop was booming, but Jackie and his pals were too young to make the clubs on 52nd Street, where the action was - so they would stake out the nearest subway stop, where they knew Charlie Parker would emerge at around 8:30 on his way to the gig. McLean and Parker struck up a friendship, and Parker would urge the younger musician to stay away from drugs, even as he asked to borrow his horn so he could pawn it to buy a fix. McLean also became friends with pianist Bud Powell, and the two practiced together in late 1948 and early 1949.
McLean unfortunately did not follow Parker's advice, but rather followed his example, and began to experiment with heroin. Ultimately he became addicted to the drug. He struggled with this addiction for years but kicked his habit for good later in life.
McLean's first recording session was in 1948, when he was seventeen years old. He played baritone sax on a rhythm-and-blues session with alto saxophonist Charlie Singleton, which produced the songs “Camel Walkin’” and “Hard Times Are Coming.”
Powell recommended McLean to trumpeter Miles Davis, which led to his first opportunity to play jazz on record in 1951, when he appeared on the album Dig for Prestige Records, a key recording in the emergence of the hard bop style. Also featured on this recording were Sonny Rollins on tenor, Tommy Potter on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. Following this session, McLean performed with Miles Davis around New York City off and on through 1953.
McLean studied music formally for one year at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College, before returning to the jazz life in New York, and gigs with pianists Paul Bley in 1954 and George Wallington, whom he also recorded with in 1955. McLean recorded his first album as a leader, The New Tradition, in 1955 for Ad Lib recordings. It featured Donald Byrd on trumpet and Mal Waldron on piano. McLean followed this album with his first release for Prestige in 1956 entitled Lights Out!. The album featured Donald Byrd once again and Art Taylor on drums.
Also in 1956, McLean began a close association with bassist Charles Mingus, whom he played with for several years. McLean’s first appearance on a Mingus album came in 1956 for the bassist’s Atlantic recording Pithecanthropus Erectus. McLean stated that playing with Mingus was, “what boot camp was like,” and that Mingus “was a slave driver in terms of rehearsing and getting that music together.”
In addition to his work with Mingus, McLean performed with saxophonist Hank Mobley and recorded with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for their 1956 Columbia album Hard Bop. In 1957, McLean released several albums of his own and also recorded with Blakey, drummer Art Taylor, and guitarist Kenny Burrell for his double guitar album released on Prestige Records.
In 1958, McLean recorded with pianist Sonny Clark for his Blue Note album Cool Struttin’. Musicians featured on the album included bassist Paul Chambers and trumpeter Art Farmer. The album includes a memorable “Lover."
That same year, McLean’s drug problems prompted New York City to revoke his cabaret card, and so he was no longer allowed to perform in clubs, and so became dependent on his studio work. As a result, his recording output increased dramatically. In February of 1959, McLean recorded with bassist Charles Mingus for his album Blues and Roots. This album of haunting but beautiful compositions featured McLean in his usual blues and bop mode on Mingus's composition "Moanin'" and "Tensions."
McLean began to branch out, and by 1959 was acting in an appropriately themed play about the perils of drug abuse called The Connection, which was made into a film in 1961. McLean traveled around the country with the production, and appeared on pianist Freddie Red’s Blue Note album The Music from the Connection. Featured on the album was the song “O.D." McLean toured with the play to London in 1961 and stayed in Paris for a couple of months to play around the city.
Also in the early 1960s, McLean recorded prolifically for Blue Note. In 1960, he recorded with organist Jimmy Smith, trumpeter Lee Morgan, and released his album Capuchin Swing. He recorded a duet album with tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks entitled Jackie’s Bag and it featured one of the altoist’s best known hard-bop compositions “Appointment in Ghana."
In 1961, McLean released two albums for Blue Note, Bluesnik and A Fickle Sonance. 1962's Let Freedom Ring was a watershed for the saxophonist, on which he successfully balances between the disciplined approach of bebop and the rawer approach of free jazz on songs such as “Melody for Melonae."
By 1968, McLean had released more than a dozen albums as a leader for Blue Note, and had also recorded extensively with trumpeter Lee Morgan. He then joined the music faculty at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where he founded the school’s African-American music program in the early 1970s. By 1972, he had become the head of the school's Jazz Studies program. With his wife, actress Dollie McLean, he founded the Artists Collective to provide Hartford's at-risk youths with a safe haven and opportunity to be exposed to African and African-American arts, including music, theater, and dance.
As a performer, McLean's career enjoyed a renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. He appeared with pianist McCoy Tyner in 1985 at a concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of Blue Note Records at New York's Town Hall. This performance was issued that same year as the album It’s About Time. In 1990, McLean recorded with vocalist Abbey Lincoln for her Verve release The World Is Falling Down. In 1999, the altoist recorded his last album as a leader. Entitled Nature Boy, it featured pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist David Williams playing on Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."
In 2000, the Hartt School renamed its Jazz Studies degree program the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz. In 2001, he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government's highest honor for jazz musicians. McLean died on March 31st, 2006 at the age of seventy three. He is survived by his wife Dollie and one son. Among his many former students from the Hartt School are saxophonist Antoine Roney, drummer Eric MacPherson, trombonist Steve Davis, and pianist Alan Palmer.
Select Discography as Jackie McLean
as Jackie McLean
Lights Out! (Prestige, 1956)
4,5, &6 (Prestige, 1956)
Jackie’s Bag (Blue Note, 1959)
Swing, Swang, Swingin’ (Blue Note, 1959)
Bluesnik (Blue Note, 1961)
It’s Time (Blue Note, 1964)
Right Now! (Blue Note, 1965)
with Charles Mingus
Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956)
Blues and Roots (Atlantic, 1959)
with Miles Davis
Dig (Prestige, 1951)
with Lee Morgan
Lee-Way (Blue Note, 1960)
Tom Cat (Blue Note, 1964)
Infinity (Blue Note, 1965)
Contributor: Jared Pauley