Jackie Mclean was a great bebop alto saxophonist whose status and influence is too rarely discussed In my early jazz days, it took me a while to “get” Jackie McLean. His rather vinegary tone didn’t help, as did the fact that he could occasionally sound out of tune.  I also didn’t get the chance to hear him live as he rarely came to the U.K. in the years when so much of his time was devoted to teaching and proselytizing for bebop in the U.S. However, once I delved into his classic Blue Note catalogue from the 1960’s I became a confirmed admirer.

Throughout his long life, Mclean saw himself as an exemplar of the modern jazz canon, following in the footsteps of bebop’s founding fathers, Bird, Monk, & Bud Powell. And Mclean’s early life as a New York jazz musician carried so many of the resonances of the jazz life in that era; heroin addiction, exploitation by unscrupulous record companies and booking agents, loss of his New York cabaret card and therefore the right to appear in New York venues, incarceration, and recovery. All while continuing to produce music of great creativity and passion and going out of his way to offer recording and playing opportunities to upcoming younger musicians. 

Jackie McLean – Danny Silverstone Archive

Another feature of McLean’s life that was also generic to many jazz musicians of that era was the profound and practical support he received throughout from his wife, Dolly Mclean. With Dolly, Jackie was able to support and retain his family, procure gigs and recording contracts, co-found their own record label and embark on a long and distinctive teaching career that focused strongly on bringing jazz into the musical mainstream of disadvantaged American communities. I plan to devote further episodes to other jazz wives, the unsung heroines of the jazz life in the bebop era and beyond.

What, along with Sonny Rollins, marks Mclean out was that he was born and raised in Harlem and grew up knowing, listening to and being supported by the founding fathers of bebop. He was present as a listener as the bebop genre was being made, and very quickly became active as a distinctive player in the bebop business in New York. The legendary Bud Powell mentored him in his own distinctive way, and he enjoyed a deep personal relationship with Charlie Parker. He both benefitted from Parker’s tutelage but also suffered by comparison with Bird’s genius-not least in his own estimation.  Jackie Mclean was one of the very few people who were admitted into the inner circle of Thelonious Monk.

Daily warm-up exercises for Saxophone – Jackie McLean

Hence my description of McLean as “bebop royalty”. He didn’t have to relocate to the jazz capital of the world. He was there from the outset. He was part of the story.

In preparing this piece I have returned to the chapter devoted to Jackie Mclean in AB Spellman’s classic Black Music-Four Lives in the Bebop Business.  Here’s Spellman summarising Mclean’s early career,

“Jackie Mclean is said to have” paid his dues”, meaning that he has worked his way up through the more respected bands and that he has suffered all the slings and arrows of the jazz life. He has held jobs and recorded with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Arty Blakey and many many more. Jackie Mclean was a drug addict for much of his adult life, yet he has managed to raise three children who are conspicuous among teenagers for their sanity”.

Jackie’s son Rene went on to establish his own career as a saxophonist and educationalist and often shared the bandstand with his father.

Jackie was a quintessential survivor. He was also unusual for jazz musicians of his generation in his willingness to talk about his drug addiction openly and in real-time. He toured in Jack Gelber’s 1959 play “The Connection” based on a realistic portrayal of modern jazzers. Jackie was part of the ensemble in both the New York and London productions. Here’s Jackie directly quoted by AB Spellman on the prevalence of addiction within jazz in the 40s and 50s,

“Why did so many musicians use drugs? In the Forties, times were harder than they are now…Everyone had troubles and heroin made you forget your troubles. It doesn’t make your life too realistic, but it relaxes you and takes things off your mind, troubles, you know. It doesn’t give you hallucinations and make you think that the world is a bowl of cherries, but it does take your mind off your troubles”.

Jackie Mclean had the capacity and strength of character to quit narcotics, to remake his life and to live an active musical life through to his mid-70’s. So many of his generation, among them Fats Navarro, Sonny Clark, Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers and many, many more didn’t…and died too young.

Another defining feature of McLean’s life from mid-career was his establishing and leading, with Dolly Mclean, the Artists Collective, “dedicated to preserving the art and culture of the African Diaspora” at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, Connecticut. The rather idiosyncratic documentary, Jackie Mclean on Mars, focuses on his life as an educationalist while providing him with a platform for some trenchant observations on contemporary jazz life. The shorter interview with his friend and fellow resident on Sugar Hill, Sonny Rollins provides some interesting background on Jackie’s early life.

Researching the playlist for this piece I decided to focus predominantly on Mclean’s impressive body of work for Blue Note in the 1960’s. All recorded while Jackie was an addict. His numerous Blue Note releases provided his main source of income while he was prohibited from playing clubs. Hard to imagine Keith Richard having to suffer such an infringement of his right to work! The originality of the writing and playing on all these selections is remarkable and I hope that you will agree that they sound fresh and contemporary 60 years later. The playlist also goes back to Jackie’s earliest recording from his late teenage years; Dig Mclean’s own tune on an early Miles Davis album of the same name, and Alto Madness, one of Jackie’s first albums as a leader. Finally, a rare chance to hear Jackie and Dexter Gordon together with a European band in 1973.

The episode playlist…

Jackie McLean grew up in the epicentre of the bebop musical revolution, he paid his dues and lived to tell the tale. Many of them.

  1. Dig from Miles Davis Dig 1951
  2. Strange Blues from Alto Madness 1955
  3. Alto Madness as 2
  4. New Soil from Minor Apprehension
  5. Half Nelson from The Source with Dexter Gordon 1973
  6. Eco from Right Now
  7. Right Now as 6
  8. Old Gospel from New and Old Gospel with Ornette Coleman 1967
  9. Rene from Let Freedom Ring 1963
  10. Sundu from A Fickle Sonance 1961
  11. A Fickle Sonance as 10
  12. Francisco from Capuchin Swing 1960
  13. Capuchin Swing as 12
  14. Appointment in Ghana from Jackie’s Bag
  15. Kahil the Prophet from Destination Out
  16. Blues Function from Bluesnik 1961