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Sons of Miles
JACKIE McLEAN: Sugar Free Saxophone
by Mike Zwerin
24 September 1998

PARIS - Jackie McLean was looking for the common tone, to be able to move between all 12 tonal centers with total freedom and under complete control. The listener should know nothing about this. In order for this to work, the force must be emotional not technical.

One night, during his two weeks at the Magnetic Terrace here in Paris, he felt he got pretty close to something he's been searching for for a long time. But those breakthroughs come and go and maybe don't really come at all and after a few days had passed he was no longer so sure. Anyway he's still playing and trying.

McLean is among the few remaining evergreens with enough will and force to motivate themselves night after night despite age, a demanding métier, prejudice, tangents and contrary trends. His alto-saxophone style combines the solid texture of Sonny Rollins's tenor and the fluidity of Bud Powell's piano - shorthand, but true enough as far as it goes. His angular-phrased tough, seductive, sound is as unmistakably recognizable as anybody active today. He calls it "sugar free."

Which may or may not have Freudian implications because he grew up on Sugar Hill, once a noble corner in Harlem which then soured into drugs and shoot-outs. "The streets were clean when I was a kid there," he said, at once proud and sour about it.

"Duke Ellington, Nat Cole and Don Redman lived in the neighborhood. People cared about our neighborhood."

McLean, who was born in 1932, heard Charlie Parker at the age of 14 and "the first time that name came out of my mouth I knew at that moment I was going to be a musician." Five years later, he joined Miles Davis.

Looking back, he wondered: "How did I do it that fast?" He was fast and furious in his early 20s. "When I was strung out on dope my horn was in the pawn shop most of the time and I was a most confused and troublesome young man. I was constantly on the street, in jail, or in a hospital kicking a habit.

"The New York police had snatched my cabaret card and I couldn't work the clubs any more except with [Charles] Mingus who used to hire me under an assumed name. [He can be heard already moving between tonal centers on Mingus's record 'Pithecanthropus Erectus' in the '50s.] The thing that saved my life was a Jackie McLean Fan Club started in 1958 by a guy named Jim Harrison. I didn't have a big name or anything but he collected dues and he'd rent a hall once a month and present me in concert."

McLean played the saxophonist - four years at $95 a week - in the first Living Theater production of the "The Connection," an off-Broadway milestone which cast a new perspective on the nature of make-believe.

The junkie hustling the audience in the lobby turned out to be an actor, the hostile woman in the mezzanine was part of the cast. Some of the actors were addicts, but you weren't sure who. Actors playing characters on stage never looked the same again. "I fell in love with theater then and there," McLean said. "Even my saxophone playing became a lot more theatrical after that."

Remebering how lean and mean he looked in those days, like an early James Dean, and seeing him turn 60 with a girth approaching the late Sydney Greenstreet, it was astonishing how the lust to take risks can be, if anything, greater 35 years later. There has never been and there certainly was not now anything approaching fat or phlegmatic about this man's head.

The following is a story about the old days told without punctuation during a run to a pharmacy to buy a cornucopia of homeopathic medicines (similar runs were once made for cough syrup or a lot worse):

"Sonny Rollins and me were sitting in this club and suddenly the door opened and it's Sonny Stitt and he said 'okay I've been waiting for this,' and he had an alto under one arm and a tenor under another and it was like 'High Noon' or something and he said 'you're both hot stuff from New York and you both think you can play well I'll take on both of you up on the killing stand come on get up there on the killing post both of you.'"

Those were tough and competitive times and survival was day-to-day. Stitt did not survive, while McLean and Rollins were still picking up steam, combining honed intelligence with renewed energy at an age when most men are well into retirement.

Jackie McLean

It may or may not be coincidence, but both had strong wives who managed their careers. McLean said his wife Dolly "stood up when other women would have crumpled, or killed me. For years, she was the one who worked day jobs to keep us and our three kids together. I really owe her."

Both McLean and Rollins also paced themselves by retiring from full-time playing for years during their middle age. Rollins periodically left for such places as India, upstate New York and the Brooklyn Bridge to meditate. McLean joined the faculty of the highly rated Hartt School of Music of the University of Hartford in Connecticut in 1970, and he became chairman of its African-American music department.

The department was established, he had a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his chair and he could afford to bring in guest lecturers when he was away. So he "came back on the scene for real. My original mission is still the same. I intend to try and continue to be significant on the instrument.

Not just 'Jackie McLean, oh I remember him.' But to be at the forefront of the horn. I'm ready to kick the doors down."

Photo: Jackie McLean.
Credit: Christian Rose

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