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